More than one out of eight students do not complete their course, costing taxpayers millions, according to figures published in a university guide.
Johnny Rich, editor of the PUSH Guide to Which University '96, said this figure would be much higher if the former polytechnics, the so-called new universities, are taken into account.
The guide, which compiles a league table of "flunk rates", takes its information from management statistics compiled by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors andPrincipals, which to date do not include figures for the new universities.
Nearly a quarter (23.2 per cent) of those who start courses at Brunel University do not finish, whereas only 2.7 per cent "flunk" at Cambridge, according to the guide.
"Behind these statistics are thousands of stories of personal tragedies: students who have to drop out because of debts; students who are unhappy with their course; others who do not like the university; others with emotional or other problems," said Mr Rich.
Student debt at Brunel is Pounds 2,000 per year per student, according to the guide which also notes on its "booze index" that, at an average of Pounds 1.45 a pint, the students' union beer is among the most expensive in the country.
But Brunel is saved from occupying the nadir of the flunk table by Salford's 25.2 per cent drop-out rate. In mitigation, Salford does have a high proportion of access courses aimed at adults without traditional qualifications who wish to enter higher education.
The table shows that collegiate-style universities - and also, possibly, those which have first pick of students - occupy the top places. Cambridge (2. 7 per cent), Oxford (4.9 per cent), London School of Economics (jumping from 19.4 to 5.2 per cent), Durham (6.8 per cent) and Warwick (7.0 per cent).
At the bottom are Salford (25.2 per cent), Brunel (23.2 per cent), City University (20.8 per cent), Imperial College London (19.5 per cent) Dundee (18.5 per cent).
The overall drop-out rate of 12.8 per cent refers to the 1993 academic year and is 0.4 per down on the previous year's figures.
Mr Rich said: "The guide looks at all the different aspects of a university from accommodation to clubs and societies. But we always advise potential students to visit. After all, the university they choose is the place they are going to have spend at least three years of their life.
"And that is why it is often when students go through the clearing system that problems occur. Students end up at universities in places they know very little about. My advice would be not to rush into a course. Instead, taking at year off to do something else or to try and improve grades is a better idea. "
A spokeswoman from the CVCP said the figures must be treated cautiously. "The drop-out rates include everything from people falling under a bus to people delaying courses. It must also be taken into account that different courses have different drop-out rates. Medicine, for example, has a very low rate whereas engineering is much greater. Therefore comparing a university with a large medical school and small engineering department to one with the opposite arrangement would not be fair."
She said the CVCP is now working on a database that includes the new universities and it will be reviewing what information is to be published.