Tuesday, 26 May 2009

University’s drop-out funding ‘conspiracy’ (Islington Tribune)

By Tom Foot

SERIOUS allegations of “conspiracy” were made against an Islington university in parliament on Wednesday.

The Westminster Hall debate called by Jeremy Corbyn MP, and attended by high-profile politicians including the Universities Minister David Lammy MP and former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, heard claims from a top Tory front-bencher that London Metropolitan University intentionally “misreported” student drop-out rates to increase its funding allowance.

An external audit of the university last year by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), an independent quango that manages all universities, found London Met had wrongly claimed £36.5million over three years for students who did not finish their courses.

Conservative MP Rob Wilson, a former shadow higher education minister, told the debate: “Were university departments told to suppress drop-out information? My information is that that is exactly what they did. Far from being a cock-up, this was a conspiracy.”

The Tory Whip added: “Government figures show that, in 2005-06 and 2006-07, London Met reported non-completion rates of between two and four per cent, when it would be expected that such a university would report figures closer to 30 per cent. Why did the university get it so wrong? Why did the Hefce not pick it up much earlier?”

Mr Corbyn said: “That is a very interesting question – I am looking for the answer myself. Suddenly it fell to a very low figure. The questions that we are asking all point to the need for a proper inquiry into what went wrong. Above all, we need to try to get through this crisis.”

He told David Lammy:“I would like the Minister to understand the degree of anger and concern locally and within the teaching and student bodies.”

University bosses plan to claw-back the cash by axing 550 full time staff posts leading to more than 5,000 student places being lost. Entire departments will be closed down in the cost-cutting cull.

Labour MP Emily Thornberry said: “It remains unclear how incorrect information about non-completions led to the university being overpaid. Others have referred to an error by the administrators, but I spent 20 years as a criminal lawyer dealing with cases that looked very much like this one, and I do not understand why the police have not been involved.”

Mr Lammy told MPs that a forthcoming independent inquiry into higher education funding patterns would focus on recent events at London Met.

He said because universities were “autonomous” it would not be right to interfere in their accounts. He said: “It might be nice for the local minister to go in and start organising a university’s finances, but we live in a democracy in which this Parliament has voted for that autonomy and maintains it. That means that the Government cannot intervene in any situation in which a university is in discussion with the funding council.”

Diana Abbott MP, who had pleaded with Mr Lammy not to “hide behind” the quango Hefce – an unelected body that manages all universities and agrees levels of public funding – could be heard loudly criticising Mr Lammy in the Commons lobby after the debate.

London Metropolitan University is the largest university in London spread over four campuses in Hackey, City and Islington. Notable alumni include the radio presenter Zoe Ball, the film director Lord Puttnam and the comedian Vic Reeves – but it is celebrated for widening access to people from disadvantaged backgrounds with a range of unique courses. More than 97 per cent of the students went to state schools and more than half are from ethnic minorities. It is felt that Hefce should give more leeway to universities taking students that are, statistically, more likely to drop out midway through courses.

Mr Duncan Smith MP told the debate: “The university has some specialities that are almost unique to it, such as cabinet-making. The only other university in the UK that offers such a course is Buckingham, which is a private university, and the people we are talking about are not the kind who will go there to get these skills.”

Special praise was given to a range of courses at London Met including the Caribbean Studies, which helps forge links with universities in other deprived parts of the world.

Labour MP Ian Gibson told the debate: “More and more universities in this country depend on international contacts and on students from overseas paying astronomical fees. It seems to me that the London Met has started something by looking at poorer countries with poorer students. It is making relationships across the world, and that is worth a five-star rating.”

Demonstrations have been staged outside the Holloway Road buildings and Vice Chancellor Brian Roper was forced to resign in April. He continues to be paid his £150,000 until November despite being replaced on Monday by the “trouble-shooter” Alfred Morris CBE. The new Vice Chancellor is known in the industry for turning around the fortunes of education institutions facing financial ruin.

A sit-in student occupation of university buildings in City ended on Friday and lecturers and a massive protest will march from Highbury Fields at 11am, down Holloway Road on Saturday to a rally in Archway Park.
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