London Metropolitan University has been told that unless it takes action “very soon” to arrest a “pattern of decline” it will be “extremely vulnerable within two years”.
This assessment by PwC, the accountancy firm brought in by London Met to help assess its future options, is contained in a number of documents seen by Times Higher Education.
The institution was stripped of its licence to sponsor international students in August 2012, and although it regained it in April the following year, the documents show that the university is still facing myriad financial, recruitment and student satisfaction problems – to which it is considering radical solutions. It has already decided to increase most undergraduate fees to £9,000.
Recruitment this academic year has fallen, according to a paper on “future strategic options” submitted by the vice-chancellor Malcolm Gillies to London Met’s academic board for a meeting on 14 November last year.
Domestic undergraduate numbers are down 8 per cent and postgraduate recruitment has fallen 13 per cent, while returning domestic numbers and international recruitment are also suffering “considerable shortfalls”, the paper says.
According to other papers submitted to the board, London Met’s international enrolment targets are just a quarter of what they were in 2011-12 before it lost its licence, and overseas recruitment agents are not “fully confident” in the university’s restored licence status.
A further update to the academic board in February 2014 shows a “mixed” picture for recruitment for 2014-15, with undergraduate applications down 14 per cent but postgraduate applications up 5 per cent.
The documents also outline plans for an additional round of cuts to courses after a radical cull of about two-thirds of undergraduate programmes in 2012-13.
Despite this clear-out, the university still has to recruit students to make up the numbers rather than being selective about who it accepts, and there is a “disproportionately high reliance” on finding students in clearing, the November paper notes.
“Courses not demonstrating ‘selector’ characteristics must be progressively removed,” it says. Another document presented to the board at the same time moots the introduction of two-year degrees.
The paper submitted by Professor Gillies, who is to retire this November, also recommends pulling out of research education, except in “niche areas” of “research excellence” that are “supportive” of “prompt” student completion.
London Met’s spending on research “gains a poor rate of return” and is “substantially subsidised by teaching income”. It adds: “A majority of its staff are not demonstrably research active, and a minority hold a doctoral degree.”
Another assessment of the university’s strengths and weaknesses presented to the academic board in November spells out further problems for the university, including a “potential cash-flow shortfall over next year” and a “large estate-maintenance backlog”.
London Met recently abandoned its high-profile strategy of setting relatively low undergraduate tuition fees (of between £6,000 and £7,000). Its prospectus for 2015-16 reveals that undergraduate courses will “typically cost £9,000”, compared with an average of £6,850 in 2014-15.
In November, the academic board heard that the undergraduate “market” had turned out to be not as “price-sensitive” as had been anticipated.
At the same meeting, the board heard that less than 6 per cent of students who had accepted an offer from London Met this academic year said that “affordability” was a factor in their decision.
As well as asking PwC to look into its options, the documents show the university jointly commissioned a review of its “future sustainability” with the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
It made two recommendations, both agreed by London Met’s governors on 30 January: first, that there should be a “new strategic dialogue about what kind of role London Met should play in higher education”; and second, to launch a project called MET2020 to improve student recruitment, experience, retention, satisfaction, marketing and administration.
MET2020, according to a paper submitted to the academic board in February 2014 by the deputy vice-chancellor Peter McCaffery, “is about confronting the reality that we are under-performing as an institution”.
A spokesman for London Met declined to comment on any of the documents or respond to questions put by Times Higher Education.
Met with disapproval: concern over low student satisfaction scores and ‘over-generous’ marking
The documents seen by Times Higher Education show serious concerns over marking and student satisfaction on some courses at London Met.
At a university awards board meeting on 21 March 2013, external examiners’ findings were discussed, including “very important” concerns about “over-generous marking of work involving poor written English and weak referencing”.
The external examiners said that it was “essential to have thresholds and to reflect capabilities in marking criteria”, the minutes recount.
Their concerns about the English language abilities of some students had led them to question “whether standards were actually comparable with those elsewhere and to question whether appropriate entry standards were maintained”.
A paper presented to the academic board in November also reveals “significant variation” in London Met’s National Student Survey satisfaction scores for 2013.
Just 38 per cent of students who took the BA in film and broadcast production were satisfied; similarly, the BA in graphic design scored only 39 per cent, the paper notes – although other courses did better than the national average.
The “dysfunctionality” of the “bottom 15” courses in terms of student satisfaction are “losing us income and damaging the reputation of the university’s other (the majority) academic provision”, the document notes.
Poorly performing courses will be told to improve their NSS scores or face closure, the paper states.
However, if a new opportunity for “curriculum innovation” arises in the closed subject area, “we will start afresh with new courses and new staff”, the paper says.
Faster minutes: governance committee urges change
London Met’s governance committee has recommended that it stop delaying the publication of council minutes for 12 months after this policy was criticised by the Information Commissioner’s Office.
In December 2013, the commissioner ruled that the policy was likely to be in breach of its guidelines to publish minutes “reasonably soon” after meetings.
Following this, the university undertook a review of the policy, and the governance committee has now recommended to the university’s board of governors that the delay period should be shortened to six months.
The board considered this recommendation on March, but a London Met spokesman declined to say whether it had accepted a change to the policy when asked by Times Higher Education.