Late admissions procedures operated by colleges are too inflexible and do not allow students to change their minds once they realise that they have opted for the wrong course, claims the report, College Life, published by the Further Education Development Agency. Government policies stressing the importance of retaining students make it less likely that a college will admit to mistakes, it says.
Many students who fail to achieve the GCSE grades they need for A-level or general national vocational qualifications advanced programmes choose alternative courses while still under stress after receiving poor results. Some courses are unsuitable or simply not demanding enough, and lead to them dropping out of college within a few weeks.
Phil Hodkinson, professor of post-compulsory education and training at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-author of the report, said colleges were not necessarily to blame initially as decisions over which course a student follows often have to be taken in a hurry and may depend on where there are spaces. The problem came when young people realised that they wanted to switch courses, or leave college completely, and staff are under pressure to preserve their college's reputation for retaining students.
"Further education policy is based on the assumption that young people can be guided to take the right decision and that it's always in their interest to stick with it," said Professor Hodkinson. "Colleges are penalised if people don't finish their courses. That approach is far too rigid. The way to solve the problem is to rethink the significance of those initial choices in terms of college funding."
The report highlights the case of a male student who enrolled on a GNVQ foundation course in business studies after narrowly failing to get GCSE grades which would have allowed him to take the intermediate course. He dropped out, claiming the course was too easy, and found a job which included studying for an NVQ in retailing.
Last week, the Further Education Funding Council published new guidance encouraging colleges to set themselves challenging targets for retaining students. Professor Hodkinson warned that these could mean that the needs of individual students, who may be better off leaving a course early, are ignored.
"If you set targets like that, then college staff are put in an invidious position," he said. "Students leaving a course part-way through isn't always a sign of failure. We should be more accepting of the fact that some young people may need to change their decision and that may mean changing course or dropping out."