FoI request opens can of worms over London Met’s dropout rate

Hefce figures for non-completions 13 times higher than university data. Melanie Newman reports

May 8, 2009

The student non-completion rate reported to funding officials by London Metropolitan University was 13 times lower than the figure established by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

The university is threatening to make hundreds of staff redundant in the wake of a multimillion-pound clawback by Hefce related to the underreporting.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act from Hefce show that the university reported a total dropout rate of just 2.3 per cent in 2006-07. Hefce gauged the rate at 30.6 per cent for the same year. The previous year, London Met had reported that 3.6 per cent of students failed to complete, compared with a Hefce figure of 30 per cent. In 2007-08, the university said it had 15,306 full-time undergraduate and taught postgraduate students, but Hefce said there were 10,613.

Hefce has now asked London Met to repay, over a five-year period, £36.5 million it was overpaid from 2005-06 to 2007-08. It has also deducted £15 million from the university’s 2008-09 recurrent funding.

“The main issues found in the audit review were underlying weaknesses in the student-record system and a misinterpretation of the funding rules,” Hefce’s FoI officer said.

Under the rules, students are identified as non-completions if they do not take their final assessment or pass any modules. While other universities have also fallen foul of the regulations, the size of the clawback from London Met is unprecedented.

Times Higher Education has seen correspondence in which a London Met lecturer suggests that students should be removed from the course register as they never turned up to classes. A senior manager advises the lecturer that this could not be done before 1 December, the date figures are returned to Hefce.

Hefce is changing its rules on completion for 2009-10. It has agreed to fund students who do not complete their courses as intended, provided that they complete more than 20 credits’ worth of study. At its April board meeting, it reaffirmed its policy of recovering overpaid cash relating to the underreporting of student non-completions.

The board also agreed that “if the recovery of overpaid grant had very significant financial implications for a higher education institution, then, on a case-by-case basis, Hefce might work with it to develop an investment proposal founded on the need to achieve systemic change that repositioned the institution, thus strengthening the future sustainability of its provision”.

But it added that there would be “no guarantee” of an institution securing funds via this route.

The funding council has commissioned an independent “lessons learnt” exercise into its role in the London Met debacle, which is due to be submitted to the Hefce board in July.

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