Students who drop out of university should be treated as lifelong learners, not failures. This was the strong message from the latest study on the subject, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
Academics talked in depth to 67 young students under the age of 25 who had dropped out at four of the new UK universities - Paisley, Staffordshire, Glamorgan and Ulster. They found that only one had no intention of returning; around a third were already back in some form of education. All had pulled out voluntarily, and had not failed exams.
Introducing a forum on the report at Paisley University last Friday, John Field, deputy principal of Stirling University, who is a specialist in lifelong learning, said the language used to describe drop-out rates "pathologises and moralises" decisions to leave.
Professor Field suggested that universities had little real information about their students. Those who drop out do not do so because they have decided to stop learning, he said. "It's just that they have decided to stop that particular course at that particular time."
The report, From life crisis to lifelong learning, expresses considerable scepticism about the accuracy of information supplied by universities.
"Many of the ex-students listed as under 25 were not, as the research team discovered when they came to interview them. Moreover, some had never been undergraduates or had not dropped out, raising serious concerns about university data collection and its use."
Despite these doubts, the Higher Education Statistics Agency recently published headline-grabbing data which showed that Scottish universities had soaring drop-out rates - listing Napier University in Edinburgh as doing worst, losing 18 per cent of its undergraduates.
The four universities in the study had withdrawal figures ranging from 10 per cent to 19 per cent, all higher than the national average of 7 per cent.
The report said the emphasis on drop-out rates among working class students in particular was likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. "The idea that working class students are more likely to drop out exists as a popular story producing significant negative effects on both students and the local area."
Hazel Knox, a senior research fellow at Paisley University, told the seminar that the majority of students involved in the study made a "thoughtful and rational decision" to drop out. Only a minority simply "drifted away".
She suggested that financial problems were not among the primary reasons.
Many were poorly informed about their choice of subjects at school and some found the transition difficult. There were complaints that the workload was heavy, some staff were said to be unapproachable and there was a lack of awareness about who to go to for support.
Liz Thomas of the Higher Education Academy, one of the authors of the report, said its findings showed that dropping out was not about "working class or institutional failure".
"What our report reflects is the failure of a system that is not suited to a mass approach to higher education which has a considerable diversity in the backgrounds of students," Dr Thomas said. "It is assumed that students are young, studying full-time, taking courses continuously and spending their time at the same university. This need not be so."
She called for the distinction between full-time and part-time students to be abandoned, and for multiple entry and exit points with students given credit for what they have achieved.
There was also a need for follow-up and encouragement aimed at persuading students to re-enter higher education after they have left, Dr Thomas believed. "We put a huge amount of effort into attracting people into HE,"
she said, "so why not the same effort into supporting a return to HE?"
Dr Thomas suggested that universities should be more upfront about drop-out rates and give students a clearer idea about problems they might face. "We are scared we might lose them if we do so, but we are losing them anyway,"
Melanie Ward, president of NUS Scotland, called for better careers advice.
The introduction of ICT-driven guidance might be better than the misplaced advice of the past, she suggested, but it "isolates careers advice from the passions that drive us".
WHAT THEY SAID
* "I told them I wanted to make films for a living but they told me I'd never be able to do that. They made me tick boxes on a computer. The number one jobs the computer came up with were stonemason, police officer and mechanic" -male
* "In a sense, I feel I have let myself down. In another, I feel I have been a bit brave in deciding it wasn't for me" - female
* "People need to know what they want to do and what they want to get out of it -not just jump in" - male
* "I keep telling myself if I hadn't went to university I could have learnt a trade and be earning good money" - male
* "Nobody realised there was anything wrong and no one asked . . . The doctor was the first person I spoke to about the problem and she was the only one that said 'I understand'" - female
* "No support, too much of a heavy workload, thinking I was losing control in everything that I was studying" - male
* "At college, there are only about 25 people and you all get to know each other. The lecturer knows you. Everything is fine. Here the lecturer doesn't even know if you walk past him. He doesn't even know if you are a student" -female
* "We were told that there was a study helper kind of person if we were ever having trouble in classes. I was never told who it was so, if ever I needed one, I wouldn't know where to find them" - male
* "At the open days, there are no real examples of work to show you . . .
Whenever people got on open days from school, they're just happy to be out of school and they don't really know what to ask" - male
* "I wouldn't look at it as positive or negative. I just look at it as a learning curve. I tried it and it wasn't for me" - male
* "We felt that to talk about dropping out at induction would give a negative impression" - careers adviser