Autumn, the season of UCAS forms, personal statements, and university prospectuses. Hopeful students visit campuses and scrutinise newspaper guides listing the best universities; national newspapers produce tables showing the best university for certain subjects. But some of the most important statistics are missing.
How many students will not complete the course? Will they be able to change if a problem arises? Most importantly, after the strong pastoral system in place at school, will there be anyone at the university to advise them or even care if there is a problem?
Three years ago Stephanie was one of these hopeful students. with four good A-level grades (French A, geography B, English literature B and general studies C) she began a joint honours course in French and beginners Italian at Exeter. However, she soon encountered problems as she was one of only three beginners in the class of 15. She found it increasingly difficult to cope but, reluctant to give up without a fight, continued for four months before asking if she could change course.
She was told that she must carry on for the whole of the first year and pass first-year exams. She managed this and was then allowed to change to geography and French, but was told she would have to cover first-year geography at the same time as the second-year.
This second year passed with no hint of a problem - her essay grades were good. But she failed all her exams. With hindsight, her geography tutor acknowledged that there was a great deal of learning involved in two years study combined in one.
Resits were possible in September so all her plans to work during the summer to pay off her large overdraft were shelved, and she began an arduous study programme. Nine weeks later and more than half a stone lighter, Stephanie resat her exams.
In late September, one week before she was due to begin her final year, she received a phone call telling her she had passed her French exam and two second-year geography exams, but had failed her two first-year geography exams and therefore could not continue at Exeter. She could, of course, apply to another university to begin a degree course in 2000 but, as her local authority had already paid for the first two years of a degree course, she would have to pay the fees for the first two years herself.
Stephanie is now looking for a job. She still has her four good A-levels, but nothing to show for her last two years of study. As a head of modern languages and a sixth-form tutor, I am appalled at the waste of talent. As her mother I am devastated.
The writer, who teaches in the north of England, wishes to remain anonymous