The dropouts on top of the world

Thousands will quit university this year. But as Jonathan Sale reports, dropping out does not mean young people are doomed to be failures

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Shouldn't you be in your Finals exam?" my father asked one of his students when they bumped into each other in a Cambridge street. "No, I'm giving up university," was the answer. That was in the laid-back Sixties, when even dropping-out was left to the last minute. Today's speeded-up students mostly make the decision to abandon ship in their first year, often at around this point in their first term, or over Christmas.

Next month the Higher Education Academy publishes the preliminary results of a three-year, £1m research project into the question of drop-outs. It is hoped that the results will help universities to smooth the path of students during their three years and stop some from leaving.

More than 28,000 of Britain's 2008/09 student intake jumped overboard, a drop-out rate of 7.9 per cent, according to figures compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The percentage ranges from 0.9 per cent of first-year students at Cambridge to a sizeable 19.3 per cent in the case of London Metropolitan.

As the student intake has been rising over the years, so too have been what universities refer to coyly as "non-retention" numbers – but the proportion of drop-outs has been falling.

However, the introduction of £9,000 university fees, as well as deterring some from going to university in the first place, might make those who do become students question whether it is worth hanging on until the bitter end of their course.

"One reason is that their academic expectations aren't being met or they've made a poor choice," said the Academy's Liz Thomas. "A second reason is that they don't fit in and don't feel comfortable with their peers and the senior members of staff. The third reason is a concern that their studying won't help them with their aspirations, usually work-related."

A drop-out does not look good on the CV of the student or on the records of the university, as it suggests a failure on one side or the other – or both.

However, if things aren't working, bailing out may be for the best. For centuries, students have been taking an early bath and many of them have then gone on to have successful careers.

False starts: They abandoned studies but still made it

Jon Snow, Channel 4 News anchor

"Student life at Liverpool University was a magical time and not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be thrown out after five terms. But 1969-70 was a period of unrest and from my first year I had been on the union executive and so at the cutting edge of student protest. There were a number of issues that I got involved in, pre-eminently investment in South Africa. The university authorities more or less said: 'If you want to occupy the Senate House, the door's on the left.' Two and ahalf thousand students walked through it. I was sent down for a year, the most lenient sentence. I never went back."

Carol Smillie, TV presenter

"I got to Glasgow School of Art when I was 18. I spent the first year thinking I didn't know if this was what I wanted to do. There were people with green hair and pink shoes. I got a job in a really nice cocktail bar. Then I took up modelling, which fitted around my study time, much to my parents' horror. The tutor I got was very much into abstract art – throwing paint at the wall – and I wasn't. Another tutor, a lovely man, said:'I should stick with this modelling malarkey. You can do your art at any time.' I left at the end of the first year. The stuff that I do now is life drawing and portraits – purely for my own personal pleasure."

Simon Callow, actor

"I determined that I would go to university, with the sole objective of acting my little socks off. At Queen's University in Belfast, I took up full-time acting, with the occasional glances at a textbook. I switched afterthree weeks from French to English, because French was too much like hard work.

The teachers were excellent; Seamus Heaney was a lecturer. But I knew that I would never learn to become an actor in the company of my peers;I needed to learn from professionals. At the end of my first year, I was off to drama school, which changed my life."

Bill Turnbull, BBC News presenter

"I certainly enjoyed my time at Edinburgh very much. You had student grants and it was much more relaxed. You do two years on general subjects and a further two years on your main subject – I read politics – but I bailed out after three years. I started writing for the student paper, edited it in my second year and decided that this was what I wanted to do. I got an 'ordinary' degree at Edinburgh; it wasn't classified but was a reasonable pass. I can barely remember the names of the people who taught me there, which tells us something: it was more my attitude to them than theirs to me."