An MP has described the government’s struggle to monitor the attendance of students at alternative higher education providers in England as “mind-boggling” and “sloppy”.
Appearing before the House of Commons’ public accounts committee, Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department for Education, said that annual data returns were the only way his staff had of monitoring how many students in receipt of tuition fee loans were actually attending courses at their college.
MPs on the panel expressed concern about this, amid ongoing concern about high dropout rates from alternative providers and allegations of fraud in the student loan system.
Highlighting a recent National Audit Office report into the government’s progress on overseeing alternative providers, Liberal Democrat Layla Moran questioned Mr Slater on why the government appeared so “accepting” of high non-continuation rates among students in the alternative sector.
“There is a serious lag time between data and reporting,” she said. “If a student dropped out in October, it would take well into the next year for something to happen at that provider.”
The result is that the institution is not held to account and students are lost from the system, Ms Moran added.
Mr Slater replied that it was the DfE’s intention to collect data from universities and other higher education institutions on a termly instead of yearly when the new Office for Students’ regulatory framework comes into force in 2019-20.
Currently, there is no way of telling exactly how many students drop out in real-time, since the government “does not have online access to digital attendance regimes for 112 providers,” he said. “If we did that would [make it] easy…but it’s going to take some time to get that right. We are working on a plan.”
Conservative MP Heidi Allen retorted: “How on earth can you not have [student attendance] data and never have sought this data? This is taxpayers’ money, this is funding. If a student is not there we should know about it.
“I find it absolutely mind-boggling that we’ve been so sloppy and don’t have this data. Why has it taken an NAO report for us to realise we need it?”
About £400 million is paid to 112 private colleges in England every year through the student loan system. The government is hoping to expand the sector following the passing of the Higher Education and Research Act earlier last year.
Dropout rates in the alternative sector were put at 25 per cent by the NAO report, 15 per cent higher than the rest of the higher education sector. Meanwhile £36 million of public money had been paid to “ineligible” students at alternative providers, the report added.
A BBC Panorama programme broadcast last November also alleged that some students were being fraudulently enrolled onto courses in alternative providers in order to draw down student loan funding.