'Mickey Mouse' row revived

February 14, 2003

Higher education minister Margaret Hodge this week angered students and university staff by implying that the reason universities have high drop-out rates is that they run "Mickey Mouse" courses.

Ms Hodge, who was giving evidence to the education and skills select committee on Monday, said that Mickey Mouse degrees, defined by her as poorly designed and lacking intellectual rigour, were responsible for students quitting courses early.

Ms Hodge then used the University of North London (now merged with London Guildhall University to form London Metropolitan University) and the University of East London as examples of institutions with unacceptable dropout rates. She said the government was determined to bear down on the problem.

Ms Hodge, attacked last month for her comments on Mickey Mouse courses, was asked by Conservative committee member Andrew Turner MP (Isle of Wight) whether she thought the responses had been unfair or defensive.

She said: "The context in which I said that was something I feel passionately about. As a nation we do well in dropout rates but in some universities it is just too high."

Ms Hodge then mentioned UNL, where 45 per cent of students starting a course in 1999-2000 were projected to quit before the end of it, against a benchmark of per cent. She also mentioned UEL, where the projected dropout rate was 33 per cent against a benchmark of 26 per cent.

She added: "Setting students up to fail is pretty unforgivable. Why do students fail... mainly it is the course... not financial. So if you do not have a course of sufficient intellectual rigour it is Mickey Mouse and should not be offered by the university."

Mr Turner asked if that meant that universities with high drop-out rates were Mickey Mouse universities. Ms Hodge denied that was what she had said.

Unfortunately for Ms Hodge, she was due to visit UEL the next day to discuss proposals in the government's recent white paper. The university is based partly in her Barking constituency.

A UEL spokesman said: "This is a complex issue. While there are many reasons why students do not complete their courses, we believe financial pressures are a key factor. We are certainly not complacent about student retention, and are committed to improving the situation."

Paul Lynch, communications officer at UEL's student union who donned Mickey Mouse-style ears in protest, said: "Most people drop out of UEL because they face massive financial burdens. Margaret Hodge is trying to detract attention from the real issue of student hardship."

Brian Roper, chief executive of London Met and formerly vice-chancellor of UNL, said: "London Metropolitan University completely rejects any suggestion that any of its programmes have characteristics which the minister described. The real reason for non-completion rates is to do with fundamental financial hardship, which the government's white paper proposals do not address."

Mr Roper invited Ms Hodge to name Mickey Mouse courses and also invited her to visit the university to speak to students.

Roderick Floud, vice-chancellor of London Met, said: "There is evidence of a close correlation between dropout and previous educational attainment.

So, it is very unlikely to be poorly designed courses."

Mandy Telford, president of the National Union of Students, said: "To suggest that institutions with high dropout rates have courses which are not up to Margaret Hodge's standards is nonsense."

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