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Monday, May 11, 2009

Please sit still while teacher counts you

The story that had my jaw dropping this weekend concerns London Metropolitan University, which could be fined £40,000,000 for overclaiming student numbers in order to qualify for government grants. The Vice Chancellor, who was, incidentally, paid more than the Prime Minister, has taken early retirement, presumably on terms that most of us can only dream of. In the wake of that there's talk of 500 staff redundancies and London Met not being "fit for purpose". There's a massive finger-pointing exercise going on at the moment involving all your old favourites: personal animosity, class war, race, union power and tactical score-settling. When the smoke clears we might just glimpse the real malaise which the figures only hint at.

The Higher Education Funding Council For England found that London Met had a total dropout rate for the year 2006-7 of 30.6%. London Met reckoned it was only 2.3%. Even allowing for accounting disparities that's a discrepancy you could drive a bus through. In 2007-8 the University claimed funding for 15,306 students. HEFCE said there were only 10,613. It further reckons that over a five year period they overpaid London Met £36.5 million. That's one university managing to mislay a third of its student body but still claim for them.

Obviously some inquiry will focus on how these claims came to be made and how many people had to turn a blind eye to them but what we really need to know as a society is this. Who is taking the piss out of the taxpayer most? The students who sign up and then just wander off in increasing numbers? (What is the real drop out rate and what does that mean for "education, education, education"?) Or the academics and bureaucrats who are so focussed on funding that they collude in what in the private sector would be called fraud? Either way it's a bigger scandal than MPs expenses.