Page last updated at 00:14 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

University's 'future in doubt'

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education reporter

Universities have been urged to widen access to higher education

MPs have warned that the future of a university is in doubt as it faces the repayment of over £50m, after an audit found "incorrect data" on students.

London Metropolitan University has admitted that this puts more than 300 jobs at risk - and unions are planning a campus protest on Wednesday.

The funding council says the deduction of income follows an audit showing inaccurate reporting of drop-out rates.

A university leader says there could be further cases of such "gotcha audits".

The audits have been carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) - which found discrepancies in the figures showing the number of students who had not completed courses.

'Substantial overfunding'

The "incorrect data" meant that there had been "substantial overfunding" of London Metropolitan since 2005.

The University and College Union says that for London Metropolitan University, attended by 34,000 students, this will mean "unprecedented cuts" which would threaten course closures.

In an early day motion, MPs say that the university faces the loss of £56m - an £18m reduction in teaching budgets and £38m in claw-backs for previous years.

"This scale of cuts throws the future viability of the university into doubt at a time when education and training are vital to the capital's economic health," says the motion before the House of Commons.

The university says that the teaching budget loss will be £15m - and that the retrospective reductions will be "substantial".

Hefce says that there are negotiations over a repayment schedule, with a meeting set for next month.


The University and College Union and the National Union of Students are to stage a protest outside a meeting of the university's governors on Wednesday.

It is believed that there are other institutions which will face a loss of income or repayments from previous years following audit checks by Hefce.

Kingston University is among other institutions facing repayments. It says that after an audit the figure for students not completing courses was adjusted from 6.4% to 8.6%, which will mean losing £500,000.

Les Ebdon, head of the Million+ group of universities, has attacked a "perverse" form of counting non-completion rates - which, he says, will undermine efforts to widen access to higher education.

Under the counting system, he says that students who re-sit and pass course modules in the following year are counted as having dropped out - with the loss of funding for those students.

Mr Ebdon warns that this will hurt the universities making the greatest efforts to recruit poorer students, who are mostly likely to drop-out.

"We are taking a risk to implement government policy - but we're not getting support for it."

He described the funding council's tactics as "gotcha audits".

Job fears

Barry Jones, the London regional official for the University and College Union, says that the union is seeking an explanation from the university authorities into what has caused this funding problem, which he says could threaten one in five staff.

The loss of more than 300 posts could affect the jobs of up to 500 staff, he says.

He says that the MPs' warning about this being a threat to the viability of the university was not an exaggeration of the seriousness of the problem.

The union's general secretary described the situation as "critical".

A statement from the university says that job losses "appear to be inevitable" and that the impact of the funding cut would be "significant".

A Hefce spokesman says that the details of any other universities which will have to make repayments will not be known until March.

He also rejected suggestions of unfairness, saying that the rules on completing courses had not been changed and that they had to be applied consistently.

Hefce also says that there is additional funding available to support the widening of participation in higher education - and that this is a separate funding issue from inaccuracies in student data.

However there will be changes in future to the funding rules for partially-completed courses which might address the concerns about modules being re-taken by students in the following year.

To send comments please use the form below.

I expect there will now be a major campaign to "write off" this debt using all the usual red herrings and justifications (we didn't know the rules, the rules weren't explained to us, the rules are unfair, what about the effect on staff and students etc). As a taxpayer, I need to have confidence that my hard-earned money is used effectively and (just as importantly) fairly. This institution has received too much funding- it must pay it back or we will create a "moral hazard" for all public sector bodies. By the way, I work in the public sector myself.
John, Stockport

Maybe they could shut it down and reopen it for mature students and people who missed out on 'higher education'. They could call it - North London polytechnic.
Rowsenator, London

UCU and those MPs who have risked speaking publically are not exaggerating the problem. HEFCE are determined to claw back money at a time when the government are handing it out to banks willy-nilly, doesn't this strike anyone as poor behaviour? The vast majority of staff at LMU are left completely perplexed as to why we and our students should suffer because of gross mismanagement at the top. Surely it is time that the VC resigned and HEFCE kindly wrote the debt off.
Stephen, London

What ever happens to the future of the university it needs to ensure that the quality of students' education does not suffer to pay for the university’s mismanagement.
Emily, London

In response to Emily from London, the students of the university have been suffering for a long time now. This is not the first time the uni has been in trouble and students have gone out of thier way in the past to help keep classes running. The staff have also tried everything they can but the problem lies with the greedy directors who think the education system is just for them to make thier millions.
Jane, London

I actually am a student at London Met, and it upsets me that there are some people out there who are willing to toy with my future, and in all honest, the future of a university I am proud of. What if my university crumbles? Where will I be? Yes, I agree that it is taxpayer's money - but we're also talking about 34,000 people's future. Oh yes - if I have to restart a degree, doesn't that mean I'll have to apply for student finance? £3k+ tuition fee loan, plus maintenance loan? Surely that's taxpayer's money too? Hmm.
Gareth, London

I'm a student at London Met, well I am until next week when I'm transferring. You guys talk about taxpayers money and the fair and justness of the situation, but I pose to you all what about all the students at London Met? What about the other students, like myself, who are studying there, trying to get a good degree and make something of their future. I/We had no involvement in the University's mistake. But yet we're the ones who will actually be paying the price. It's our degrees that will suffer. We'll be the ones that lose our teaching staff, but they'll go on to teach in other institutions, while we're left with not enough staff. It's our courses put in jeopardy. Our futures which are actually affected as we either have our courses cancelled, or our teaching standards lowered, and end up with degrees barely worth the paper their written on. But yeah, you guys are right. It's the taxpayer that matters. And as long as they get that money back, who cares about the 34,000 students at the university, right??
Caroline G, London

For many years I was involved in returning the staff student data ratios and I did this at several institutions. The problem is the student data collected and stored in various software applications that universities use, these applications have inbuilt reports which generate the return/report to HEFCE. 95% of the times the data stored on these systems are incomplete and inaccurate. Just like any computer system no matter how good it is if the data is incorrect, rubbish results will be produced. Universities employ data clerks to input the data and these employees do not care and not understand the implications of what they are doing. Institutions have to make things clear to all employees and have checks. If the data was entered into the system in time and correctly I can guarantee you that the correct reports will be produced. There is no point in blaming the system, the system is fine but the employees cannot be trusted. Universities should pay the data entry clerk well, train them and really have checks in place. I am writing this from experience from several Institutions
Chris, London

High drop out rates (including the high "re-sit next year" rates) arise when entry standards are low. Weak students fail exams, though not all exams because some lecturers are willing to "play the game" and produce high pass rates.... The problem is partly rooted in the creation of the new "1992" universities and the end of the CNAA. No doubt there are many honest, decent people running the 1992s; there are also some "back street dodgy motor seller type cowboys" in the system. Chickens may be coming home to roost. What about a random quality check of students by viva voce? There might be a deficit there, as well as a numbers one. It might even be more serious than the false numbers.
Rob, London

It's the same rules for all universities. Most of the rest of them manage to count properly. If London Met can't manage to count their students accurately, then they deserve to be punished. They are, in effect, claiming taxpayers money for students that have left.
D, Hull

This whole "I'm a tax payer, let them rot" attitude is so blinkered. It certainly doesn't bear thought to the 500 members of staff who'll lose their jobs, nor the many many students who will need/have to transfer. Those responsible should stand up and accept the blame. The government needs to find a re-payment solution which doesn't have the knock-on effect of tossing people out into the credit crunch wilderness.
Pierre, London

Surely the key issue here is the sheer amount of repayment due - some £50m. A 2.2% error at Kingston amounted to a £500k repayment, so how did London Met end up £50m out? The students should not be made to suffer for the gross misconduct of those running the University who have not understood their responsibilities. Unfortunately, they will not be held accountable and will be allowed to walk away from the problem just like those who got our banks into such a mess.
John, London

This is going to be swept under the carpet. London has too many universities and this smoke and mirrors method of accounting should be stopped. They are bright boys and must have known what they were doing.......make them pay or else what will the others think?
JL, London

As a London Metropolitan staff member, I can't express how disheartening this is for colleagues and students alike. We are all up to our eyeballs in work and are expected to find the morale to get things done, whilst waiting to effectively be given the sack as the redundancy package is had worth anything. It's an extremely worrying time especially in the current economic climate. All the meantime, the Vice Chancellor who got us into this mess pretty much has job security at our expense. Why are staff members being held accountable for the actions of Senior Mismanagement.
PP, London

As a former lecturer at London Met I am deeply saddened by what I read. My perception of London Met is that it was and is a truly unique establishment. By far and away the mostly ethnically and culturally diverse University I have ever worked in (staff and students) and it does a sterling job at providing credible higher education to a truly mixed student community, many of whom enter without standard entry qualifications. It achieves this via a unique teaching progarmme that involves lecturers working exceptionally hard and dilligently to assist and motivate students in their courses. It is a vibrant and enriching work environment. I have equal high regard for the students there who I found to be unremittingly pleasant and enthusiastic.

Clearly there is a problem here; no one wants to condone the falsification of returns, but to punish the two key stakeholder groups: staff and students seems non-sensical and totally unjust. This is a regulatory and managerial failure as in the case of the currrent banking crisis. I therefore have no quibble with the removal of managers and those in charge of regulation and monitoring but please spare the jobs of my ex-colleagues and the educational experiences of the students.
Ross, Northampton

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