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Editorial: Degree of concern

Dropping out of university has, until recently, been a relatively rare phenomenon among British students. The United Kingdom has for many years had one of the lowest rates of non-completion in the world. This means that, although our participation rates have often lagged behind those of other countries, the proportion of graduates in our workforce is higher than most. Many people would be surprised to know, for example, that in 1995 Britain had more university-educated science graduates per head of the labour force than had most other developed countries, including Japan, the United States and Germany.

So this week's news - that almost 20 per cent of higher education students who began their courses in 1994 failed to complete them - is a cause for serious concern.

Our traditionally high graduation rate has been due to several factors: the competitive process of getting into university; the specialised nature of A-levels; short three-year undergraduate courses; and, in particular, a long-standing system of maintenance grants with tuition fees paid by local authorities.

Most of the elements in this equation are now shifting. Pushing up the participation rate and broadening the intake by encouraging more working class, mature and "second chance" students has resulted, not surprisingly in more individuals who have been unable to complete their studies. Contrary to the beliefs of the "more means worse" brigade, dropping out has been more often due to financial crisis than to academic failure. The progressive shift from grants to loans has exacerbated the situation - as the current high levels of debt among graduating students suggests.

Since this alarming trend towards non-completion has become established before the effects of the new tuition fees have been felt, it is clear that universities should put strategies in place at once to ensure that as many students as possible are enabled to complete their courses.

Sheltered jobs - such as those widely found on American campuses - should be established to make it easier for students to support themselves. Housing costs should be held down. Young people in serious financial difficulty should be allowed to put their studies on hold for a year before returning to finish the course. By applying for more vocational degrees, today's students are showing their willingness to seek practical solutions. They should be given every possible support by the institutions which are being paid to educate them.

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