Leader: Don't cut short a new lease of life

As London Met cleans itself up, it deserves to be given another chance to succeed - for that is what it affords its students

April 15, 2010

It was the worst governance failure for more than a decade, as Mike Shattock, visiting professor at the Institute of Education, points out in our cover story. But the saga concerning inflated student-completion numbers at the capital's largest unitary university has finally drawn to a close, leaving behind question marks over the senior executive, a purged governing body, tarnished reputations and many lessons to be learned.

Clutching the poisoned chalice that is the headship of London Metropolitan University is Malcolm Gillies, the former vice-chancellor of City University London, and no stranger to governance issues himself. As befits a new broom, he is attempting to sweep aside all vestiges of the institution's troubled past. All those who were members of the board before 31 August 2008 will have stood down by the end of this August, and investigations are under way into the role played by the senior staff cited in two reports into the crisis.

Professor Gillies has also appointed a new chair and vice-chair of governors, and will deliver a fresh strategic plan to the board next month, which he himself describes as "visceral", just before the general election.

It is certainly a job that demands strong leadership (although no one could accuse Brian Roper, his predecessor in the London Met hot seat, of lacking robustness) and perhaps importantly a sense of perspective and calm. Professor Gillies brings to the role senior management experience on three continents - Australia, the US and Europe - and a foreigner's willingness to explore the fundamental values of education.

He also champions both academic and press freedom and a spirit of openness, and one of his first moves has been to allow London Met data to be released and included in the league tables that Mr Roper so despised.

Whatever Mr Roper got wrong, he was certainly right about one thing: the mission of London Met. He famously said that Oxford and Cambridge universities should go private because government money was better spent on universities, such as his own, "that transform people's lives" rather than on "finishing schools" for the privileged. He found unlikely support from Alan Ryan, at that time warden of New College, Oxford, for saying that the government should prioritise spending according to its policy objectives.

The policy objective in question was widening participation, which many in the sector have speculated prevented the Higher Education Funding Council for England from coming down harder on London Met when student-data concerns first came to light.

As Professor Ryan pointed out at the time, London Met is an expensive way of pursuing widening participation, catering as it does for students who have not, for whatever reason, been able to enter higher education via the traditional route, doing so often later in life and on a part-time basis. In fact, what London Met undertakes is not just widening participation, but true social engineering. It does transform lives - and that doesn't come easy or cheap.

It is an institution that has given many people a second chance, and for that reason it is fitting that it should be given one, too.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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