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.


  1. I use to defend the public sector a lot more but with all the PFI schemes etc huge sums of money get lost and no one is brought to book. There's is alot waste in the private sector too though.

    It's as the american senator said recently "a bilion here and billion there and it soon starts to add up to real money"

  2. I work in a university that's in what is coyly termed the same "sector" as London Met - i.e. the widening access, non- "traditional" student sector. There's a real tension between the government's agenda to have 50% of people taking a degree, and the absolute imperative, driven by the funding model, to retain students. So on the one hand we are accepting students with at best a mediocre academic record, whose motivation is not study but lifestyle, and on the other we are being penalised financially if we fail to retain them. No-one can be surprised if these utterly apathetic students drift away, but the system insists that every student who decides, for probably very good reasons, that they don't want to carry on, represents a failure on the part of the university, which then gets its funding reduced.
    You are right, it looks as if they are cooking the books, but it's actually quite difficult to keep track of non-appearing students, because whereas in the past we could just withdraw them, now we are expected to keep them on the books.
    There are quite a few "ghost" students who register, but never turn up- we had one last year who registered, collected her student loan, and disappeared to Ibiza.

  3. Anonymous10:35 am

    I work at Londonmet. This situation is clearly appalling and should be laid at the feet of our former Vice Chancellor and board of directors. People who felt that because there was an area of uncertainty (as I understand it, dodgy figures were reported for 3 or so years and HEFCE never acted..)

    Trouble is, we operate in an area where there is alot of positive Government rhetoric, but little actual help. Widening access and broadening participation are noble aims and sound great on the stump, but the reality is that for many of our students, just getting the funding that they are entitled to is a desperate struggle. Then there are the returning students who can't get any funding at all.

    That said, Londonmet is far from blameless and many of the students we have do fulfil all the worst cliches of benefit spongers and system squeezers.

    As an aside, one of our buildings canteens has been occupied this morning by a group of students for reasons as yet unknown. How exciting!

  4. Seems this story has something in common with the Parliamentary expenses business. In both cases what ought to be a question of judgement turns into an argument about rules. That's the thing that's happened in the last ten years: too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

  5. Preach it RobSpence.

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