Mary Dejevsky: Incentives that work the wrong way

London Metropolitan University is a very far cry indeed from Oxbridge
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The Independent Online

It's that time of year again, and, sure as the arrival of the snow goose, two separate seasonal trends are well in train. Class warriors are cleaning their pistols for the annual duel over admissions to our ancient universities and, in a rather newer tradition, ministers are defending the rapid expansion of higher education against background grumblings of too far too fast.

This year, however, the predictable routine has been spiced up by the launch of a review into university tuition fees – to be headed by Lord Browne, formerly of BP, which will of course not report until after the election – and the simultaneous eruption of a scandal which could be seen as summing up all the malign developments in higher education of recent years.

The university in the frame is London Metropolitan, which was formed by amalgamating the former North London Polytechnic and London Guildhall. After two highly negative reports, London Met has been ordered to repay many million pounds in public funding, its staff face job losses running into hundreds, and its governors face strong hints that they should resign. As reported in The Independent yesterday, the head of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), the body that funds English universities, has given them six days' written notice to consider their position.

So how has London Met managed to put itself so egregiously in the wrong? It stands accused of continuing to claim money for thousands of students who registered, but subsequently dropped out. An associated charge is that the university authorities showed so little care for their students that they did not know who was attending and who was not. Put the other way round, the university provided such a substandard service that many students gave up, but the university carried on claiming for the higher numbers regardless.

Even if no one individual or group profited personally from what looks, on the face of it, like a gigantic scam, public money went to waste. Not only this, but the distribution of money to universities is likely to have been skewed to the disadvantage of the many because of the misleading figures submitted by just one. If there was a crime, it was not without victims.

For all that, though, I find myself reluctant to join the lynch-mob that seems to be lying in wait for London Met's governors. There may indeed have been inadequacies, even dishonesty, on the part of some, perhaps many, and if there was, then those responsible must answer for it in court. But the sort of offences for which London Met is being called to account reflect failings that are endemic in the organisation of higher education in England as it has evolved over the past 20 years.

What is more, I doubt very much whether London Met is the only institution to have inflated its figures in one way or other to influence funding. Student numbers, student grades, academic research publications have all been heading sharply upwards. And even if London Met is alone, or – let's say – the worst of a bad lot, there may well be reasons for that, too.

London Met inherited buildings scattered in different parts of London. Many are, and probably were, in a poor state of repair. There is little about any of them to rejoice the eye or lift the spirit. The majority of its students are local to London; many come from deprived areas and are the first in their family to go anywhere near higher education. You would probably not choose London Met if you had the grades to go somewhere else, or if you could afford not to live at home. The balance of the intake is made up of students from abroad who pay full fees, and to an extent help subsidise the rest.

You can debate forever the merits of allowing former polytechnics and others to recast themselves as universities – a move that abolished at a stroke the distinction in nomenclature, while leaving wide differences of other kinds in place. But it goes without saying that London Met is a far cry indeed from Oxbridge. And all the financial incentives have been in favour of expansion.

The Government encouraged universities to expand in the hope of meeting its – misguided – target of 50 per cent of school-leavers going on to higher education. But the Russell Group of "leading" universities will expand only so much, lest individually they dilute the brand. The slack must thus be taken up by the likes of London Met.

Lord Mandelson and others can scold Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, Exeter – take your pick – for not giving "working class" school-leavers a chance, but the Government has a choice here, and it is a choice that is in the end political. It can introduce aptitude tests for university entrance, as in the United States, so negating to some extent the effects of poor schooling (though the evidence is not all one way). It can throw the universities open to all with a minimum number of A levels, as happens in many countries on the Continent. Or it could impose quotas for the admission of "deprived" but "promising" students, tailoring funds accordingly. Every option would probably require the introduction of a preliminary first year and be calculated to meet fierce resistance, not only from the older universities. Any government intervention along these lines would also cast doubt on the universities' much-vaunted independence.

What remains is to persist with the present deceit that bestows on, for example, London Met the same supposed status as any other university in England, dictates the same fee structure and provides for the same funding arrangements that depend on crude numbers, courses and competitive awards for research. Except, of course, that the money is not there to provide the students at London Met with consistent support, let alone the pastoral and tutorial attention each would receive at Oxbridge.

London Met has no hope of raising the sort of money it might need to retain relatively poorly qualified students, except by adding more and more of them (and hoping that some will give up and go away). If this Government – or the next – wants more young people to go on to higher education, it must review not only the type of courses and qualifications that are on offer, but how the funding can be better matched to the needs of different institutions, including those of London Met.