Two thirds of universities and colleges have seen an increase in the proportion of students dropping out in the last five years, official figures show.
A PA news agency analysis shows that in some cases, non-continuation rates have risen by more than five percentage points.
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.
PA examined data 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 data is available).
It reveals that 100 UK institutions (67%) saw an increase in the proportion of students dropping out.
At just under a third (31%), some 46 institutions, non-continuation rates fell during this period, 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% in 2011/12 to 12.1% in 2016/17.
A spokesman for the university said the institution “recognises that there is a need to improve student retention” and is introducing measures to do so, including recruiting additional student advisers and using data analysis to pinpoint early warning signs that a student may be experiencing difficulties and need support.
He added that Abertay has one of the highest proportions of disadvantaged students in Scotland, and that more than a third of students arrive at the university from college into the second or third year of a degree.
“This means the life experiences of our students are often very different from those elsewhere,” he said.
In England, Bedfordshire University had the biggest increase in non-continuation rates, at 6.9 percentage points, going from 8.3% in 2011/12 to 15.2% in 2016/17.
A spokeswoman said: “As a widening participation university our students can face challenging barriers to success.
“Many are mature students balancing the responsibilities of family and work with studying for a degree. Others are the first in their family to go to university, unable to turn to the bank of ‘mum and dad’, juggling commuting and part-time work with their studies.”
She added that while the institution will “always strive” to improve non-continuation rates, and that there is always more to do, it will not stop the university from “offering the life-changing experience of going to university to students who have the motivation and ability to succeed but for whatever reason have not had the opportunities to do so previously”.
A total of seven institutions had an increase of more than five percentage points in the five-year period, while 19 had an increase of more than three percentage points.
The analysis uses annual data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency for 150 universities and colleges, and covers UK, full-time undergraduate students who were no longer in higher education the year after they started their course.
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 (Hepi), 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.”
He added: “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.”
Universities Minister Chris Skidmore said: “I want to see each university and indeed courses held individually accountable for how many students are successfully obtaining a degree so that we can be transparent and open about where there are real problems.
“Many universities are doing excellent work to support students but it’s essential that dropout rates are reduced.
“We cannot afford to see this level of wasted talent.”