MP calls on Mandelson to shield London Met 'innocents' from crisis

Parliamentary motion demands protection for students and staff. Melanie Newman reports

July 2, 2009

An MP has called for "innocent students and staff" to be protected from cuts at London Metropolitan University, which is embroiled in an ongoing funding crisis.

Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, has tabled a parliamentary motion demanding that Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, intervene "to protect the university and innocent students and staff from the funding row".

He has also asked the Government to ensure that a report into the role played by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in the debacle is published "on its receipt". The report was due to go to Hefce's board on 2 July.

The funding council has asked London Met to repay tens of millions of pounds that it said was allocated on the strength of inaccurate student-completion data. The university is looking to make job cuts as part of its efforts to find the money.

Rob Wilson, former Conservative Shadow Higher Education Minister, has tabled a Parliamentary question, asking: "In light of the scandal of 'phantom students' and the 500 posts to go at London Met ... why are there no senior management cuts among them?"

He said: "This saga gets murkier and murkier. It appears that only members of staff who had nothing to do with this scandal are to be sacked. This cannot be right."

The MPs' actions follow revelations by Times Higher Education that in 2008, Hefce concluded that it had no confidence in London Met's management, and that at one stage funding chiefs were considering plans to take the "nuclear option" and dissolve the institution.

Ministerial correspondence obtained under Freedom of Information laws also revealed that a report commissioned by Hefce was "extremely critical" of London Met's data-handling processes and its governors' lack of oversight.

Brian Roper, the university's former vice-chancellor, and several of its governors threatened to sue Hefce for defamation if the report was published.

In November 2008, Mr Roper told governors that Hefce had condoned the inaccurate reporting of student completions, an allegation Hefce strenuously denies.

An email exchange between officials in the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills says that in August 2008, negotiations between Hefce and the university were "extremely difficult", with "threats of legal action flying around".

It continues: "The Hefce board concluded, in December 2008, that it had reached the point where it had no confidence in that leadership."

Mr Roper resigned in February 2009. In March, the university struck a deal with Hefce to repay £36.5 million. London Met is in the process of cutting 550 jobs, including hundreds through compulsory redundancy. However, the rest of its governors and senior management team are still in place. Mr Roper will remain on London Met's payroll until December.

Alfred Morris, interim vice-chancellor, said last month that he had been "impressed by the professionalism, competence and confidence" of his senior management group and that the "right people" were in place to resolve the crisis.

But Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, called for an "urgent overhaul of governance and management at London Met before any compulsory redundancies take effect".

"It is a disgrace that hard-working and talented staff are being axed for the failings of senior management," she said.

A government briefing included in the FoI documents suggests that some of the redundancies are not linked to the funding clawback.

Workers facing redundancy were this week asked to fill in forms listing their qualifications, number of successful student completions and grant applications, publications and their attendance record.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

- See http://tinyurl.com/lb5qey

CONSTITUTION SAVED LONDON MET'S MANAGEMENT

London Metropolitan University's constitution may have saved it from dissolution and stopped the Government from intervening in its governance.

On 7 January 2009, John Denham, the then Universities Secretary, sought legal advice about his powers to remove London Met's governing board and vice-chancellor, documents obtained by Times Higher Education reveal.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England also considered asking Mr Denham to dissolve London Met, with one Hefce board member suggesting that the council's reputation would be at risk if the university stayed afloat.

Mr Denham's legal adviser pointed out that such steps were impossible because the university was a limited company.

He said that Hefce would have "more weapons" when it became a regulator under charities law later this year.

David Palfreyman, director of the Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies at the University of Oxford, said: "The Department is not able to take over a university in the way it can intervene in the case of a failing school."

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