MPs clash over cuts after university is overpaid millions by government

June 2, 2009 at 12:46 pm Leave a comment

by Russell Badrick

A dispute concerning overpaid fees to the London Metropolitan University was in full swing last week, going to the heart of Government policy in relation to the management of higher education institutions.

An audit undertaken by the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFC) found in a three year period that the number of student completions at LMU had been significantly over-counted.

As a result, £38 million is to be repaid, and a further £10million a year will be cut from future funding.

It is estimated that including part-time workers, over 800 jobs will be slashed and some smaller departments are expected to close altogether.

More than 5,000 student places are expected to be lost, effectively forcing the University to downsize many current programmes.

The debate’s initiator, hard left Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, raised the concern of whether the HEFC will take into account the socio-economic difficulties faced by students at LMU who overwhelmingly hail from a poorer background in comparison with other London Universities, and are certain to be affected by the cuts.

Secondly, following claims that the under-reported figures were known to Vice-Chancellor Brian Roper “some time last year”, Corbyn queried: “what happened within the university to allow this systematic approach to reporting to lead to such a devastating consequence for the university itself”?

It transpired that Mr. Roper had resigned – although would be receiving half of his annual £150,000 salary.

Conservative Rob Wilson asked the question on everybody’s lips: “why did the University get it so wrong”?, to which Diane Abbott suggested the possibility of “collusion in misreporting”.

In any event, attempting to obtain an inquiry, and possible “bail-out”, Corbyn stated that the HEFC is funded by the government so, “one would expect it to act on behalf of government policy”, particularly in relation to widening access and development in British Universities.

Continuing the bail-out theme, Mark Field (Con), insisted pragmatically that Universities should not be “too big to fail”, and that it would be wrong to, “send the message that however incompetently a university is run…the Government are ready to bail it out.”

Scrutiny of the LMU’s management underperformance, which patently played a part in the downgraded endowment, then turned to the welfare of the 34,000 students, an issue which has played out in hundred of letters and demonstrations in the past week.

As well as a new “turnaround” specialist Chancellor, the option of US style “drop-in” courses were discussed as well as assistance from other London Universities.

Tory MP Adam Afriyie said:

“If there were nudges and winks—“Well, we may overlook those numbers of non-completions for a couple of years”—that is a serious matter”.

In response David Lammy, The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, admitted that the HEFC’s data contained “inaccuracies” which led to the overpayment, and that while concerns were expressed between the two institutions, the scale of the problem was “not apparent until the last audit period”.

Seemingly displaying the pressure on the HEFC, the Minister then simply stated: “the University were making returns which were false”, to which shocked Rob Wilson replied, “does [the Minister] not find it strange…that the university was submitting non-completion rates 13 times lower than the norm?”.

Not wanting to send LMU out of business, nor directly answer Mr. Wilsons query, it was revealed that repayment of the grants would be spread out over five academic years – a total of £7.6million annually and that contrary to many concerns the Minister had “no expectation that that college will go bankrupt.”

Ending the debate with broad assurances of Government help, but not to the point of direct intervention.

Mr Lammy solemnly stated that jobs could not be guaranteed but promised; “London Met students who are currently enrolled will be able to complete their studies in the normal way”.

No doubt to the delight of Mr. Corbyn an independent inquiry was “of, course” announced by David Lammy.

However, only two days later the Government announced that there would in fact be no new independent inquiry, but rather the reference was to an “ongoing investigation”.

Click here to read Russell’s blog.


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