If one looks at the correlation between the proportion of students admitted through clearing and flunk rates at institutions, it appears the reliance on snap judgments is one of the main reasons why universities are failing to fulfil one of their basic functions: to turn students into graduates.
The average "flunk rate" at British universities is 19 per cent. The new edition of The Push Guide to Which University, published last Monday, has been lauded and loathed in almost equal measure for revealing this fact. But, as the UK's best-selling guidebook for university applicants, that is its job.
The brouhaha has brewed because this year's flunk rates are for the sector as a whole; for the first time they include the former polytechnics.The highest flunk rate ever recorded for the "traditional" universities was 12.4 per cent in 1996. That is bad enough, but it's something else when nearly one in five students either drops out or fails their degree.
There are two approaches to the problem. We could calculate the proportion of the higher education budget that is being "wasted" by failure. (Offering such poor value for public money could undermine the universities' pleas for extra funding.) Or we can consider the students themselves, most of whom spend several years at university in the expectation that a degree will lead to a good job and the financial hardship they have had to endure will have been worthwhile; instead they drop out or fail and end up thousands of pounds in debt, three years behind in the rat race and with a blank space on their CVs rather than qualifications.
Of course, some of those who fail don't deserve to pass on academic grounds. Others drop out through no fault of their own or of their university. Indeed, many universities have excellent welfare provision and rescue many students who might otherwise flunk. However, The Push Guide 99 also reveals that, while the average provision is 2,638 students to every counsellor, the lowest ratio is 400:1 and the highest more than 8,500:1.
As students' personal investment in their degrees increases, universities should consider the effect flunk rates are likely to have on their attractiveness to potential investors. In particular, universities with higher than average flunk rates should be examining ways of keeping the students they've got rather than attracting greater numbers of new ones.
As the table shows, the problem varies from university to university. There are of course reasons for these discrepancies - financial pressures are harsher in London; science courses involve greater academic pressures than arts; some courses are longer than others (see box) - but none constitutes a good excuse.
In January, the Society for Research in Higher Education held a conference on student "non-completion" (the official euphemism), a sign that attitudes might be changing. A few years ago no one seemed to notice drop-outs or care about them. All eyes were on funding; expansion was the buzzword. Universities were trying to attract more students than they could properly serve and to do so they were using flashy advertising which did nothing to prepare students for the reality of university life.
The tide is now flowing the way of Push. The Department for Education and Employment wants to see a range of indicators to measure the efficiency of universities. It also wants to see them published so that applicants can make more informed decisions.
It is promised - or, according to your perspective, threatened - that funding will be contingent on performance. Push's flunk rates may therefore make uncomfortable reading for some. The figures have been criticised, as has Push for publishing them. Perhaps the critics should stop blaming the messenger and start delivering value to students.
* 'The Push Guide to Which University 99' is published by McGraw-Hill Pounds 11.99. Available direct from McGraw-Hill, Shoppenhangers Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 2QL. Tel: 01628 502500. Fax: 01628 770224. Push Online: http:www.push.co.uk