London Metropolitan University is to provide a £1,000 annual cash bursary for poorer students, which the institution hopes will mitigate the effects of the government scrapping maintenance grants.
Under a series of major changes unveiled in its new strategic plan, London Met will provide the grant to all students from families earning less than £25,000 a year who, from September 2016, will be unable to access the £3,387 state grant.
The plan also includes tighter performance management for lecturers via teaching observations, internal student questionnaires on classes and more scrutiny on time spent on unfunded research projects – with “pathways out of the university for those who fail to align with our mission, values and objectives”.
On student support, the bursary scheme will cost the university £3.2 million a year from this autumn as about 70 per cent of undergraduates are currently eligible for the full maintenance grant, said John Raftery, the university’s vice-chancellor.
The idea for the bursary pre-dated July’s Budget announcement that maintenance grants would be converted into loans, but that policy shift underlined its importance, Professor Raftery told Times Higher Education.
“Our student population is mainly from low-income households and living in London is very expensive,” said Professor Raftery.
Releasing the first tranche of money in January, and the remainder towards the end of the academic year, will tie the bursary to progression and incentivise students to stay the course, he added.
Another measure to help “recycle” loan money within London Met is to give priority to its students when it comes to part-time jobs at the university.
“At any one time we have 500 part-time workers doing jobs here and we have 14,000 very smart students who can be easily trained to do these roles,” said Professor Raftery of the “earn-while-you-learn” scheme in which students will be paid the London Living Wage, currently £9.15 an hour.
“Studies from the US also show that students who work in college are more successful as they are more engaged with their institution,” he said of the “virtuous circle” of combining work and study.
All students will be given the opportunity to do an accredited work-based module in their first year to improve London Met’s post-graduation employment rates.
“If a student cannot locate a paid internship, we will help them do some volunteering and they will be required to write up their experiences,” Professor Raftery said.
“It’s a big commitment, but our students do not come here with a huge range of contacts,” he continued, adding that work-based learning will improve students’ “social capital” and their career prospects.
Improving teaching is another priority, according to the strategic plan, which envisages a “London Met that is smaller but more stable, operating on a much more compact, better quality estate with a significantly more focused curriculum”.
London Met will aim for “100 per cent of our academic staffing establishment to have, or be working towards a Higher Education Academy fellowship or other qualification for university teaching”, it says.
“It will take us a few years to get there, but I want to be able to say, as a vice-chancellor, to parents that the person in front of their son or daughter in class is qualified to teach,” said Professor Raftery.
On the plan’s “scheme for management observation of classroom teaching”, he said that it is important to know if an academic is falling short so that “we can give them help and improve things”.
A student-led module feedback scheme, which could lead to comments reaching tutors within days, will also help to improve teaching, he added.
Financial targets look equally stretching: the university will target an annual operating surplus of at least 5 per cent with an aim of 8 per cent – more than double the 3.9 per cent sector average achieved in 2013-14.
London Met’s score in the National Student Survey, which stood at 79 per cent overall satisfaction this year, should also “converge” on the sector average, which stood at 86 per cent in 2015, the plan says.
Its call for the university to “unite as a community behind this strategic plan”, with “pathways out of the university” for those who fail to do so, may also seem to throw down the gauntlet to unions at London Met, whose members have criticised decisions made since Professor Raftery joined the university last August.
However, he believes that the “majority of staff are on board” with the strategic vision for 2020.
“We need to challenge ourselves to make sure we are performing at the top level,” he said. “If staff do not find themselves able to align with that, they will not be happy here, but I don’t envisage having many of those conversations.”