Almost half of the students at a small number of universities are falling by the wayside after the first year, the Higher Education Funding Council has found in gathering statistics for its performance indicators. And the universities with the worst dropout records are those with the highjest proportion of students from deprived backgrounds.
The dropout rate for all universities is expected to be put at 18 per cent, say reliable sources. That is higher than previous estimates and represents a total of 50,000 students flunking after one year, the equivalent to five large universities. An estimated pounds 200m of taxpayers' money is being wasted - or double that, if living costs are taken into account.
"If 40 per cent of the customers walk away from any business, your first thought is, `It's going under'," said David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers.
"That is precisely what will happen to us if we don't invest serious money in staff and students and first-class science equipment."
Tom Wilson, head of the universities' department at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, said he was shocked by the figure. "These universities must be getting something badly wrong. You may find they are places where students have little face-to-face contact with lecturers."
Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, was worried about taxpayers' money going down the drain.
"I am startled that so many people who have gained entry are leaving in such a short period of time," he said. "It may not be good value for money for universities to be open to everyone if you then have 40 per cent of them leaving. This is worthy of systematic inquiry."
The biggest failure rate is at the new universities - former polytechnics which became universities in 1992. They take large numbers of students who are older than 21 on entry, combine studying with a job and don't have A-levels.
In the past, such students would have failed to win a place at university. But today they are gaining access as part of government policy. Tony Blair wants to see universities expand further to create a highly skilled workforce and he has set a target of 50 per cent of under 30-year-olds going into higher education.
The majority of universities have dropout rates of less than 10 per cent, the funding council will reveal next week. And British universities compare well with their Continental neighbours which have famously high flunk rates.
League tables will also be compiled by socio-economic background, reflecting another cherished strand of government policy.
Ministers would like to see more students from working-class backgrounds going on to university. Next week's figures show that the great majority of universities take less than 10 per cent of students from the poorest backgrounds, but there is a small number admitting as many as 30 per cent.
The socio-economic tables will be based on whether students went to independent or state schools, their parents' jobs and where they live. There will be league tables on graduation rates showing how efficient universities are at getting students through degree courses.
Performance indicators have been imposed on the universities by the Government which wants to hold universities more to account and ensure that people are informed about higher education.
An earlier attempt failed in the teeth of university hostility. But because the new tables are being compiled by the body which channels money to the universities, they are likely to prove more acceptable.
The tables will differ from those published for schools because the data is being weighted to take account of universities' circumstances. Raw scores will be published. But each university will be compared with similar institutions.
So a university which has a relatively high dropout rate may not be doing so badly when compared with others with a similar subject mix and student intake.Reuse content