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Debts of ingratitude

Many students are abandoning their courses, saddled with debt and fearful of borrowing more. But are money worries alone responsible for the rising drop-out rate among undergraduates?

Max Ainley's assessment of his curtailed university career is bleak: it would have been better not to have gone at all, he says. "How can I put half a degree on my CV?" The sharp rise in the numbers of young hopefuls now packing their trunks for their first term is matched by the numbers dropping out, many of them, like Max, simply because they run out of money.

After winning the struggle to gain a place, almost one in five undergraduates is now failing to complete his or her course, according to DFEE figures.

And recent research by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of Universities in the UK shows that the annual student drop-out rate, which rose from 5 to 7 per cent between 1993 and 1995, is now threatening to overtake the expansion in numbers.

Only a minority of undergraduates leave because they have failed their course. Choosing the wrong university or course, poor accommodation and homesickeness are all common reasons, but the CVCP says that lack of finance is one of the main causes. The level of student debt has risen by 17 per cent over the past year - and the CVCP estimates that students who begin a three-year degree course in 1996 are likely to be at least Pounds 5,000 in debt by the time they graduate.

The over-rapid expansion of higher education is another disillusioning factor. "The quality of student experience in universities has been declining steadily," says a CVCP spokesman. "The facilities are more overcrowded and there has been a gradual cheapening and worsening of what is offered." Johnny Rich, editor of the PUSH Guide to Which University?, warns that behind the statistics lie stories of personal despair. "A typical scenario is, the library is too crowded and you can't afford central heating at your student house so you've nowhere to work. You either give up or fail your course." The PUSH guide includes a survey of "flunk rates" at UK universities, which reveals huge discrepancies. Only 0.7 per cent of students leave Cambridge without a degree, although many other universities have a flunk rate of at least 20 per cent. Cambridge also boasts one of the lowest levels of student debt - Pounds 900 a year, compared with the national average of Pounds 1,485.

Unless all schools and universities can improve the preparation and support they offer, the dreams of many sixth formers filling in their UCAS forms this week may soon be shattered.

CLAIRE EVERETT left Bournemouth University after seven weeks. "I shared a flat with three girls from hell. There were glasses left around with cigarette ends in them going green. They were noisy and inconsiderate and often kept me awake with loud parties until 4am." Claire complained several times to the accommodation office, but nothing changed.

She was also unhappy with her course, a BSc in food studies. It focused more heavily on managerial skills than she had believed from reading the prospectus and an interview. There were only 15 others in her year and, as half of them were mature students with families, she found it hard to make friends. "We were the smallest group in the whole university. They just shuffled us into little rooms behind the canteen."

Claire also found it hard to organise her time. "The course only took up three hours a day and then it was sit in your room and watch Richard and Judy. When I went to the head of the course, she just told me to stick it out, although she offered to find me somewhere else to live."

But after a huge row with her flatmates, Claire felt she couldn't stand any more. She is now about to start an honours degree in diag-nostic radiography at the University College, Suffolk, based in her hometown of Ipswich.

MAX AINLEY left York University after five terms, Pounds 6,000 in debt. He was expected to get an upper second joint honours degree in history and economics, but he couldn't afford to continue. "I would have been ruined for life if I'd stayed on."

By the third term, he had spent all his student loan and grant for the year and had a Pounds 1,000 over-draft. He admits he was careless with his money, but he wishes his bank had done more to advise him. "It got to the stage where I could just ring up to extend my overdraft. No advice was offered or setting targets to repay the loan."

Max would like to see schools offering more preparation for university life. "Instead of pressurising sixth-formers to go to university, they should give some basic financial advice. Most 18-year-olds who've always lived at home don't know how to do simple things like pay gas bills or set up direct debits."

Max who worked as a foreign exchange dealer in the City when he first left York, feels disillusioned by his university experience. He now believes there is no point in going to university if the degree doesn't lead directly to a job. "Many of my friends who stuck it out have no jobs. That's three years of their lives down the pan."

After a brief spell of unemployment he is now setting up his own business.

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