The news we carry today about the crisis at London Metropolitan University will no doubt prompt negative reflections on whether the expansion of higher education to make it more socially inclusive was such a good idea. As we report, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has effectively told the university's governing body to resign following revelations that it has been claiming far more students than it has – as a result of which the university will now have to repay more than £36m.
Large numbers of students have been failing to complete their end-of-year assessments, many of them dropping out, and the university has failed to report this – partly because the HEFCE funds universities on the basis of the number of students they have. It is clearly a complete disgrace if some universities are abusing the system in this way and covering up, or at best failing to report, the drop-out rates in order to balance the books.
But while this kind of wilful mismanagement must be exposed and those behind it penalised, it would be a pity were this to become the occasion for a general assault on the principle of opening up universities to the kinds of people who a generation ago would not have dreamt of attempting to get a degree.
The proliferation of higher educational institutions, partly through the conversion of old polytechnics into universities, carries obvious risks, precisely because these newer institutions tend to cater to a poorer and more disadvantaged student body than is average. Such students are more likely to end up struggling over – and in some cases abandoning – their studies than is the case with the children of better-off parents.
The wrong way to respond to this phenomenon, of course, is just to pretend that it isn't happening. More usefully, we could start looking at the underlying reasons as to why so many poor students give up – and see whether this outward flow can be stemmed.
One field that might repay closer examination is the courses. It is quite possible to welcome the expansion of higher education and at the same time acknowledge that not all courses are suitable for all types of students.
This is a sensitive area; even floating the question of whether universities catering to poorer students might offer more vocational, and fewer academic, courses tends to court accusations of elitism. But perhaps this reflects a snobbery in Britain about the value of vocational degrees. Other European countries appear to be far less hung up than we are about what constitutes a "proper" degree, and by extension have more regard for practical skills.
Another field to look into is student support systems. We should not assume that students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds need the same level of care as more privileged young people. These students often lack the vital external support mechanisms that most middle-class students take for granted at home with their families and friends. This needs to be taken into account.
The exposure of a few bad apples among our newer universities does not mean that the system of expanded education in Britain is in crisis. But the crisis affecting some provides an opportunity for profitable reflection on whether systemic weaknesses exist. The nature of the courses being offered and the provision of care to students look like good places to start.