One in five students 'drops out'
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One in five students starting a full-time university course in England is unlikely to complete it, statistics from the National Audit Office show.
The NAO report said 28,000 full-time students who started courses in 2004-05 did not go into a second year.
The report found former polytechnics, which often teach students from poorer backgrounds, had lower retention rates than other universities.
The government said retention was up since 2000 but it was not complacent.
The NAO statistics show 87,000 part-time students starting courses in 2004-05 did not continue to a second year of study.
Homesickness is thought to be a common cause of very early withdrawal National Audit Office report
The report said the UK measured up well internationally, with lower drop-out rates than most other countries.
But, while a third of universities had lower drop-out rates in 2005 than in 2002, the position had worsened in a quarter of institutions.
The report uncovered a range of reasons for students dropping out.
These ranged from becoming ill to finding it difficult to juggle a family or work with study.
Students at "new universities" were more likely to drop out
Some students were bored by their course or found it too difficult.
"Homesickness is thought to be a common cause of very early withdrawal, especially among young women and students from rural areas," the report said.
"An absence of positive ties means students fail to 'bond' with the institution and are more easily deterred."
It added that students from deprived areas may feel culturally isolated and have difficulty fitting in socially and also face a battle against limited funds.
"Students may have unrealistic lifestyle expectations which drive them into debt and early leaving," the report said.
More help for students
Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell said the government was not complacent, but retention rates were up since 2000 and compared "extremely well" internationally.
"The report is helpful in highlighting many examples of good practice from which less well performing higher education institutions can learn," he said.
"Universities and HE colleges are working very hard to minimise dropout rates at a time when higher education is being opened up to more and more students."
Just getting students through the door of a university is not enough Sally Hunt, UCU
The umbrella group, Universities UK, said retention was a "very high priority" for all its members.
"The improvement in retention of full-time first degree students since 1999-2000 shows the impact of the sector's strenuous efforts to support student achievement," a spokesman said.
But the University and College Union said more must be done to help students from non-traditional backgrounds once they start at university.
General secretary Sally Hunt said: "It is alarming that the institutions that are doing so much to further the widening participation agenda are the ones suffering the highest drop out rates.
"We have to understand that just getting students through the door of a university is not enough.
"All students need to be able realise their full potential at university and we must recognise that different students from different backgrounds have different needs at university."