Richard Garner: Money matters, but students take precedence

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The Independent Online

The hidden tragedy of the London Metropolitan University affair is the lack of care taken to keep a check on its students, many of whom were from disadvantaged areas having their first taste of university life.

Universities such as London Metropolitan, born of a merger between the University of North London (the former North London Polytechnic) and London Guildhall, enrol far more youngsters from poorer backgrounds than the average university. They are at the forefront of the Government's efforts to widen participation, yet they have drop-out rates which are among the worst in the country.

Worse still, they appear to have a haphazard approach to their students taking their end-of-year assessments, which is crucial in identifying weaknesses students have, showing where they could be helped to improve to make it, and ultimately, making it less of a struggle for them to continue.

Even without the two reports highlighting the inadequacies of London Metropolitan's management structure, it was obvious there was a need for far more effort to be devoted into curbing the high drop-out rate at the university – and at other inner-city universities that recruit well among society's disadvantaged groups. The drop-out problem underlines the need for the "students' charter" that the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson, advocated when he launched his blueprint for the kind of higher-education system the Government wants to see in a decade's time.

It calls for universities to give their students guaranteed access to tutors – and to the employability record among past students on their course. It should also promise action to help students whose weaknesses are exposed in end-of-year assessments.

Fortunately, this aspect of the blueprint is one that is also supported by the Conservatives' universities spokesman David Willetts, thus guaranteeing it plain sailing whoever wins the forthcoming general election. It is an idea whose time has come. It might also be a handy time to emphasise the need for tailor-made courses to be provided for the likes of the students at London Metropolitan – such as encouraging advanced apprentices into taking skills-based degree courses by offering them bursaries, another option advocated in the Mandelson blueprint. Lord Mandelson denied this was heralding a return to the era of the polytechnics but it does indicate the value of the kind of courses they provided.

If nothing else comes from the shambles exposed by today's two reports on London Metropolitan University, they should at least ensure more care and attention is paid to the progress being made at university by those who are the most vulnerable to dropping out and most in need of help.