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20 May 2009 : Column 443WH—continued

3.4 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate.

20 May 2009 : Column 444WH

A great many of my constituents attend the LMU, and I have had hundreds of letters about its financial crisis over many months. As we have heard, a disproportionate number of the students at the LMU are older students, women students and black and minority ethnic students. Far from having family support as they go through university, they often have to support families, and are the single head of their households. My concern is not the staff, although any redundancy is extremely regrettable, but those students.

LMU is one of a range of higher education offers for people who are older, or who have jobs and families: Birkbeck, a London university college that offers excellent degrees based on evening classes, the Open university and others are adapted to the needs of non-traditional students. However, let me say this: when we talk glibly about access to higher education, my view, as someone who spends a lot of time working on and paying attention to what happens in the black community in relation to education, is that it is not only about access to higher education, but about access to higher-quality education.

I draw the House’s attention to the unspoken apartheid in higher education in London. The Russell group, including Imperial and the LSE, is largely white, and some of the former polytechnics are largely black and minority ethnic. The LMU has many unique courses and excellent members of staff, and features in the top 10 of any league table one cares to mention. I strongly believe that schools should not use the class background or race of their students as an excuse for underperformance, and the same is true of higher education institutions. It is precisely because I am concerned about the life chances of older students, black women and people of all nationalities who have struggled and beaten all their expectations and those of people around them to go to university that I am concerned about standards at the LMU in future.

I understand that the funding problems stem partly from the much-higher-than-average drop-out rate and partly from the fact that the majority of students at the LMU complete their course in four years rather than the standard three. I also understand—people have talked about bad management and the funding council—that there was a degree of collusion between the funding council and the university in misreporting for years before the former finally decided to pull the plug. That may be the responsibility of management, but it is also the responsibility of the funding council, which could and should have addressed the issue in a much more measured way, much earlier, to avoid this crisis for students.

My concern is, first and foremost, that the students should not suffer in this time of financial crisis.

Mr. Rob Wilson: I asked the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) why the drop-out figures, which the hon. Lady has mentioned, were not picked up by HEFCE or the university. Has she received any information that university departments were 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.

Ms Abbott: I do not dispute what the hon. Gentleman has said. As I have said, there was a degree of collusion between the funding council and management, which
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has now reached a crisis. Who is suffering? It is not the people at the funding council, but the students. That is my concern.

I want the rights and aspirations of the students and the range of courses, as long as they are high quality, to be protected. That is particularly true of the specialities, whether cabinet making or the study of Cuba, for which the LMU is renowned. I want the quality of the education offer to my constituents to be not only maintained but increased. There is no reason at all—I do not care what people say about the class or colour of undergraduates—why the LMU should bump along in the bottom 10 per cent. I want standards to be maintained and driven upwards. The background of students should not be an excuse for failure in any of our educational institutions.

I want the funding council to help, by whatever mechanisms are available, the LMU to get through this period without the students suffering. I also want Ministers and the funding council to look at their funding systems and schemes to ensure that they properly reflect the realities of student bodies in such institutions.

Dr. Gibson: Given that we often look on universities as regional centres of education, and that students can move between them on exchanges, will my hon. Friend consider the possibility of financial collaboration between them, instead of rivalry? Why do they not work to support each other? The three universities should work together to serve the community—let us have some money from Imperial going into London Met.

Ms Abbott: More collaboration may well be part of the answer, but we must get the management and running of London Met right before there can be any notion of collaborating with other institutions.

We must look at our funding mechanisms. The funding council has not treated London Met fairly; it colluded in the situation up to a certain point, but then there was a cliff-edge crash, and the university faces potential cuts.

I wrote to the Minister about this issue many months ago, but I was disappointed with the response that I received, because he simply referred me to the funding council. Let me make a general point. We in Parliament have seen all sorts of core Government functions outsourced to organisations such as the funding council over the past 20 years. Although those functions have been outsourced, they are wholly funded and owned by the Government, and Ministers cannot hide behind such institutions. I am not suggesting that, having set up the funding council, Ministers should second-guess every decision, but it should be possible for the Government to intervene in special cases, if Members of Parliament have come to them. London Met is a special case, and Ministers have hidden behind the funding council for too long.

There is a range of issues about the management of London Met and about how we can help it through the present period financially so that students do not suffer. However, there is also an issue about whether the funding council considers the circumstances of institutions that have high drop-out rates despite the best efforts of their staff. When colleagues come to the Minister with special cases such as that of London Met, I urge him not to brush us off by referring us to the funding council. I
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think that every Member present has written asking him to focus on the special issues at London Met. Although there may be singular problems at the university, events there also raise general issues about further and higher education, which it is wholly appropriate for a Minister to focus on and get involved in.

Jeremy Corbyn: In the many letters that my hon. Friend has had from her constituents, has anyone said whether they have an alternative place to go to in the event of their department or course closing? What are their thoughts for the future?

Ms Abbott: The reason why I am so concerned about this issue is that many of the students who have written to me are really in a panic. There may be alternatives, but these students do not know about them. They have often screwed up all their courage and got together every penny that they have to go to university, which is something that they never thought that they would do when they were younger. Now, thanks to a combination of the university’s management and the actions of the funding council, the rug has been pulled from under them in what are difficult times for all our constituents. People really are in a panic, and they deserve better from the management of London Met and from Ministers, because this issue has been bubbling under for a long time.

Redundancies may be inevitable at London Met, and more may need to be done to improve management there. We may also need to move away from an assumption that institutions can excuse underperformance—whether academic or management underperformance—by pointing to undergraduates’ class or race background. That is no excuse for anything. All those things may be true, but I ask Ministers at this point to focus on the students, for whom going to university means so much more than it did even to me, the Minister and other Members in the Chamber. The Minister should focus on the students and stop hiding behind the funding council. He should intervene to ensure that students do not suffer in this transition period and that the funding council knows that it cannot apply one-size-fits-all funding solutions to universities up and down the country whose demographics and social context may be very different.

We owe these students something. We should not have spent 12 years as a Government talking about education, education, education. We should not have spent 12 years as a Government talking about skills, the need to go forward and increasing access. Whatever problems it may have had in the past, London Met has reached a crisis, and we have not stepped in swiftly to protect the interests of the students and my constituents.

3.15 pm

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): London Metropolitan is on the edge of my constituency, on the other side of the Holloway road. Many staff and students are constituents of mine, and a number of them have written to me, because they are concerned about the university’s dire financial problems and its future. Several interns, both international and local, who have worked in my office have come from the university, and I receive a weekly update on their concerns about what is happening in the university. The university is clearly in a serious situation, because it has to pay
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back £40 million of public money, which it has been wrongly paid. That will require significant restructuring, which will no doubt have a serious effect on staff and students.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, London Met has done a great deal of work on widening participation, and it runs a variety of successful courses promoting inclusion. Although it depends on how we count these things, one way of assessing Islington shows that it is the sixth poorest borough in Britain, while another shows that it is the eighth poorest. Either way, we are poor and, unfortunately, we have suffered from low levels of academic achievement historically. Universities such as London Met play an important role in attracting students who would not have considered university in the past.

The university’s vice-chancellor has now resigned, and an interim vice-chancellor has been appointed. However, 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.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend support the view, which I expressed earlier, that we need the Government to order an inquiry into the management and running of the university? In the meantime, we need to protect staff jobs and the students. We need to sort the problem out now and for the future without blaming those who are, after all, the victims.

Emily Thornberry: My hon. Friend anticipates my very next point. In the current circumstances, we need a proper inquiry into how on earth these things have happened. What has happened is unfair not only to the students and the staff, but to the taxpayer, because a trick has been played on us and we have overpaid the university, which is now in a desperate financial situation.

I ask the Minister and HEFC to look again at the issue. We must have better data auditing, because what we have seen until now really will not do. I agree with others that it is extremely unfortunate that the students suffering most come from the backgrounds that they do. Many people may to be blame, but the one group who are not to blame are the students.

Mrs. Janet Dean (in the Chair): I intend to call the Front-Bench spokespeople now. We have more time than normal, so I intend to divide the time equally, unless the Opposition Front-Bench spokespeople want to leave more time for the Minister.

3.19 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I did not intend to take even the 10 minutes that the three spokespersons normally take in the last half hour of a debate, because there are many points to which hon. Members with a direct constituency interest will want the Minister to respond. I simply warn the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), who will follow me, that I may be briefer than normal.

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First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing a debate that was obviously very important to him, and to his constituents and those of his constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry). Of course, the issue must be seen against what is a pretty dire background for many students throughout the country. UCAS applications show that for the first time in many years, there will be probably be unmet demand in the summer, the clearing that normally takes place will not happen, and trading up may not happen either. The Government are to some extent culpable in those matters, but we are dealing with an institutional matter—the misreporting of statistics by a higher education institution to the funding council.

Some of what has happened is due to the complex modular way in which students study at London Metropolitan university, as opposed to the more traditional courses at some of the universities that have been mentioned, such as St. Edmund hall, which the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) attended, and where everything depended on finals. At London Metropolitan, as at many newer universities, there is a modular course of study, and the funding and the teaching grant is made up in a complex way.

Ms Abbott: I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that what the administrators were being asked to do was all very complex; it was complex, but not that complex—they are university administrators after all.

Stephen Williams: I think that if I had finished my point I would have got to that myself; none the less, that intervention is well made, because what I was about to say was that while the situation is indeed more complex than that of many other universities, the failure that has occurred is none the less a major one, by the perhaps well paid management of a university, and, indeed, there are serious allegations, as the hon. Member for Reading, East (Mr. Wilson) twice pointed out. The situation is uncertain for 34,000 students and for the applicants who must have put in, in the current oversubscribed UCAS system, applications to study at London Metropolitan university in September. They must be full of uncertainty and worry about the institution to which they have applied. There is also uncertainty for the staff. I understand that 330 redundancies are contemplated in a total of more than 500 job losses by the university.

The hon. Member for Islington, North said that a troubleshooter, in the form of Alfred Morris, has arrived at the university to try to sort out the mess, having previously, in what people in Bristol thought was his retirement, helped out the university of Wales, Lampeter, and Trinity university college, Carmarthen. He is better known to people in Bristol for having been for many years the director of Bristol polytechnic, overseeing its transformation into the university of the West of England, Bristol, which is now one of the most successful universities in the country. I wish him well in the mission that he is undertaking at London Met.

The hon. Member for Islington, North mentioned the social composition of the student body at London Met, and called it a model of its kind in widening participation. I understand from the information supplied for the debate that 43 per cent. of the student body
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come from socio-economic groups 4 to 7, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) mentioned. The student body is older than is traditional, and there is a very high intake from the black and minority ethnic community. London Met specifically targets those groups, to meet its mission to widen participation. We would applaud it for doing so, and it is all the more of a shame that its administrative systems have failed to catch up with its educational mission.

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the skills that students learn at the university, such as cabinet making. I understand that silversmiths are also trained there. Perhaps more relevant to the modern economy, there are also many students studying media and music technology courses at the university. Those degrees will be essential to Britain’s future as we build an economy that will depend largely on the creative industries.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the specialist courses, because some of them are cutting edge, and very specialist, such as courses in sustainable architecture and civil aviation. There are a great many courses, and the place is doing well. For all the failings of the management in reporting and accountancy, the university as a whole should be congratulated on its innovative behaviour and its introduction of wider participation in education. That is why I passionately defend it.

Stephen Williams: The hon. Gentleman is right; the university should be congratulated on fulfilling its mission for its intake and educational programme, to enable its students to contribute to the modern economy.

To conclude, I have a few questions for the Minister. First, the hon. Member for Islington, North has called for an inquiry, and the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington called for intervention by the Department, and those are probably necessary, given the seriousness of the situation financially, the effect on students, and the allegations that the hon. Member for Reading, East has repeated. London Met is a merged university, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, formed from London Guildhall and North London universities. Normally, when mergers have taken place in the past, such as that between the old University college Cardiff and University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology, or the new merger creating the university of Manchester, the funding council and the Department offered a great deal of assistance to bring about a successful merger. I wonder whether that now needs to happen—in retrospect—at London Metropolitan. However, there is a need for both an inquiry and intervention to make sure that the university’s internal procedures and departments are as robust as they could be in controlling their costs and in providing that reporting functions work as they should.

I have two questions of a general nature about the sector. Let us hope that London Metropolitan university will prove to be the last instance of a university plunged into a desperate financial crisis. Given the current economic circumstances, however, that may not be the case. Is the Minister aware of any other universities that are in difficulty because of misreporting of statistics to the
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funding council? What action, if any, has the funding council taken against them to recover funds? It appears that the LMU is in a unique situation, but its administrators cannot be the only ones who have had a discrepancy in their statistics. Finally, does the Minister foresee any other intervention being needed by the funding council and his Department? Many universities, whether they are dependent on international fees or the domestic market, will be in economic difficulty, given the pressing global economic situation.

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