Two thirds of universities and colleges have seen an increase in the proportion of students dropping out in the last five years, figures showed.
At the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), non-continuation rates rose by 1.3 per cent, analysis revealed.
Last March, Government figures revealed that 11.4 per cent of 4,815 full-time entrants at UCLan in 2016/17 were “no longer in higher education”.
In 2015/16, that figure stood at 11 per cent, and in 2014/15 it was 12.9 per cent.
The figures come at a time when universities are under greater scrutiny and pressure to be more transparent about areas such as drop-out rates and graduate outcomes. One expert said that students can end up feeling demoralised if university does not work out for them, but that leaving early does not mean that they should not have gone at all.
A spokesman for vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK said: “Universities are committed to widening access to higher education and ensuring students from all backgrounds can succeed and progress. This includes supporting students to achieve the best outcomes in not only getting into university, but flourishing while they are there. Many have specific plans in place to deliver this - for example in England access and participation plans are usually a required commitment for institutions.
“However, it is clear that non-continuation is still an issue and institutions must continue to work to support students to progress and succeed at university.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: “It is always a shame when someone makes the leap to higher education and it does not work out for them. They can end up demoralised and can also find it hard to explain any gap in their CVs to potential future employers. But leaving a course early does not always mean someone should not have had a go - sometimes, unexpected life events get in the way of the best-laid plans.
“Any upward trend in non-continuation rates does need to be considered very carefully. We have lower drop-out rates than many other countries and we shouldn’t be looking to converge on their higher numbers. Students are more demanding than they used to be and there are more first-in-family students, who know less about what to expect. Moreover, the removal of student number controls has meant that some people who would previously not have been able to attend higher education can now go.
“In general, that is a good thing, but universities should only let people in whom they are fairly confident will thrive as a student with the right support, and they need to ensure that any promised support is in place.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has urged universities to “up their game” and do more to retain students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Data was examined on the five-year period from 2011/12, the year before tuition fees in England were trebled to £9,000, to 2016/17, the last year for which figures are available.
It showed that 100 UK institutions (67 per cent) saw an increase in the proportion of students dropping out.
At just under a third (31 per cent), some 46 institutions, non-continuation rates fell, while at four universities and colleges the proportion remained static.
The University of Abertay, Dundee, had the largest increase, with an 8.6 percentage point rise over this five-year period, from 3.5 per cent to 12.1 per cent.
In England, Bedfordshire University had the biggest increase in non-continuation rates, at 6.9 percentage points, going from 8.3 per cent to 15.2 per cent.
Lynne Livesey, the deputy vice-chancellor at UCLan, said it “works very hard with our students to ensure their experience is a positive one and we continually strive to reduce non-continuation rates”. She said: “We have a full enhancement of student success programme, which draws on the evidence of best practice in providing university academic, technical and student support to enable all students to fulfil their potential whatever their background.
We acknowledge that a very high proportion of our students are first in the family to go to university, have to work to support themselves through studies and have caring responsibilities and that we need to work hard to ensure they have all the help to enable them to succeed. We are pleased that our data compares favourably with many similar universities and remain committed to our goal of enabling all students to achieve their full potential.
“We invest heavily in supporting our students throughout their academic journey with us and have comprehensive student support structures in place to ensure that students have direct access to the help they need over any issues that may be causing challenges for them, such as their course, careers, accommodation, health issues or financial hardship. This includes providing designated retention leads and academic support staff across all faculties who are there to provide the immediate support that is needed to a student if they experience any kind of difficulties or hardship.
“As a widening participation university that prides itself on providing wide ranging and good quality study opportunities to students from all backgrounds, we acknowledge that in some instances students may choose to leave a course for personal or family reasons that are beyond our control. However, our priority is to make sure that students receive complete backing from us throughout their time at UCLan and that they are given every opportunity to achieve their full potential and ambitions.”