Leader: Good work that needs to continue

London Met has taken on the difficult job of widening access - it deserves support and backing in this tumultuous climate

February 5, 2009

The two Mets - Leeds Metropolitan University and London Metropolitan University - are going through tumultuous times. The former has seen the resignation of both its vice-chancellor and chancellor in the past couple of weeks, and the latter is facing the loss of up to 500 jobs as it tries to meet a funding clawback.

At both institutions, the atmosphere is tense and everyone is on edge. Whatever the reasons for the position these universities find themselves in, Schadenfreude is inappropriate. These are not easy times for universities of any sort, let alone the post-92s. Management styles at Leeds Met and London Met have come in for criticism, but before we rush to judge them we should consider the unsettled and fast-changing climate we now inhabit, in which the harsh demands of business are colliding with the sometimes gentle collegiate world of academia. In these circumstances, things are not as black and white as some would paint them.

And at London Met, the present problems have reawakened the pain that marked its creation six and a half years ago from the merger of the University of North London and London Guildhall University.

Owing to a misinterpretation of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's guidance on student-data returns, London Met has apparently been underreporting the number of students who have not completed their studies. This has meant that the university has been overfunded for several years. Hefce, acting for the taxpayer, now wants its money back. London Met is, however, not the only institution in this tight spot: other universities have also been caught out, albeit to a much lesser extent.

For most universities, non-completions are an irritation (page 6), but for those recruiting "non-traditional" students they are a major headache. Students drop out for all sorts of reasons, but those most likely to do so are underprivileged, from an ethnic minority and with no family history of higher education.

So as a society what do we do? We penalise the very institutions doing the most difficult job, knock their efforts and criticise the quality of their recruits and the degrees they confer (just read some of the postings to the Times Higher Education website for evidence of this).

Many non-traditional students have often had to battle just to reach higher education, and they have had many obstacles to overcome. It is perverse to judge their educational achievement to be of less value than the one of the middle-class student who has had an effortless journey to university.

If as a community we truly believe in the concept of widening participation, we should all support London Met as it faces probably the most difficult challenge of its existence. Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, the main constituency in which the university is sited, has put forward an early day motion calling on the Government to fund London Met adequately and on management not to cut jobs. We should remember that the university is doing a difficult job in the toughest of circumstances. Those who denigrate the institution should remember that they do so at the expense of loyal and hard-working staff and diligent and bewildered students.

As for those who argue that public funds are ill spent on institutions that they believe to be mismanaged, they should remember the position British banks are in. They made mistakes, and we as a nation bailed them out. There can be no excuse for not doing the same for London Met.

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