“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
“Oh!” cried Elizabeth, “I am excessively diverted. But it is so strange!”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Life at London Metropolitan University is always diverting, always strange. It is a prizewinning gift for the media: the family that has its brawls in the middle of the street, while others hide them behind the curtains (well, media consultants and lawyers). Here is a university that missed out on the higher education bonanza of the past decade, diverted by its own internal ructions, and clearly still has difficulties embracing the realities of this more austere decade.
Saddled with almost daily “shark attacks” from its unions and instant “reader comments” by anyone with a prejudice and a pseudonym, London Met can expect more bad press in the months to come. With round after round of redundancies, plus radical reforms of course portfolios, administrative services and estates under way, this university is so in the news that even Austen’s Elizabeth might be getting bored.
Well, I hope not. Because what London Met is struggling to do is very important - and there’s a bit of London Met’s story going on behind the curtains of most universities.
What underpins the recent stories about the institution is one impulse: affordability. A university that lived beyond its means must now pay its way - indeed, pay back for what it never earned while demonstrating “value for money”. It is learning to compete in the increasingly privatised market it finds itself in, right in the heart of London.
Beneath the strange diversions, London Met is doing a good job with its affordability reforms. Twelve months ago, to come in with the lowest undergraduate fees nationally was seen as naive: now it is seen as “shrewd”. No, London Met won’t be among the 20 or 30 “high-fee, low-status” UK universities frequently depicted as heading for extinction.
Cutting our course offerings and staffing is hard medicine, but London Met is still healthily placed for 2012-13 student admissions. What’s more, along with Anglia Ruskin University, we have gained the highest number of “new” affordable core and margin undergraduate places.
We are boldly redesigning our administration and taking advantage of new VAT rules over shared services. But might we not just disappear if others (inside or outside our sector) can simply do better for less?
This is the “big one” for London Met. Necessity has dictated that we are further along the curve of change than most.
For London Met, the challenge is to remain true to our mission - promoting affordable and accessible education for the whole community - while providing good-quality courses and services so that our students’ lives are, as we promise, transformed.
So, look beyond the sensationalist headlines. London Met is not running “a degree in stag-dos” (Daily Mail, 20 April). No, we didn’t “evict” the Trades Union Congress Library Collections: actually, we’ve persuaded the TUC to share the costs with us. No, the Women’s Library has not been closed, but we are serious about wanting others to meet its future costs, not our debt-ridden students of tomorrow. Good news may be on the way there, too.
And London Met is not “banning” alcohol, but it is reassessing how scarce resources are used to meet the needs of all students and does insist upon mutual respect. As Patrick McGhee, across the way at the University of East London, recently commented in the US press, we must “deal with the real world as we find it, not as we might wish it to be”.
That reality is truly a challenge. The social diversity that makes metropolitan London so attractive, particularly to more than 100,000 international students, also becomes part of the extra difficulties in providing a good experience across the whole student group. Times Higher Education’s latest Student Experience Survey (26 April) shows that London Met shares with UEL, City University London, Middlesex University, London South Bank University and the London School of Economics some of the sector’s lowest scores for “good community atmosphere” and for the student experience in general.
The Sodexo University Lifestyle Survey 2012, published in association with THE in March, elaborates on changing student lifestyles. As the study summarises: “The cliche of a student in a dingy bedsit surviving on baked beans and beer, with a couple of lectures a week and regular lie-ins, can be discarded once and for all.” The survey shows that the capital’s situation is often different from elsewhere in the country, with students paying out much more in rent, leaving little extra for socialising.
A 2011 London Met survey of nearly 1,500 students showed that quiet and informal study areas command a premium, along with spaces for buying food or eating your own. At the least important end were spaces for news or sports screenings, or licensed space. And the campaign students most wanted to be involved in was free drinking water on all campuses.
In the coming months, London Met will provide further “sport for our neighbours”, I’m sure. But we’ll also “laugh at (you) in our turn”!