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Parliamentary Debate on London Met University

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20 May 2009

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate.

A great many of my constituents attend the LMU, and I have had hundreds of letters about its financial crisis over many months. As we have heard, a disproportionate number of the students at the LMU are older students, women students and black and minority ethnic students. Far from having family support as they go through university, they often have to support families, and are the single head of their households. My concern is not the staff, although any redundancy is extremely regrettable, but those students.

LMU is one of a range of higher education offers for people who are older, or who have jobs and families: Birkbeck, a London university college that offers excellent degrees based on evening classes, the Open university and others are adapted to the needs of non-traditional students. However, let me say this: when we talk glibly about access to higher education, my view, as someone who spends a lot of time working on and paying attention to what happens in the black community in relation to education, is that it is not only about access to higher education, but about access to higher-quality education.

I draw the House’s attention to the unspoken apartheid in higher education in London. The Russell group, including Imperial and the LSE, is largely white, and some of the former polytechnics are largely black and minority ethnic. The LMU has many unique courses and excellent members of staff, and features in the top 10 of any league table one cares to mention. I strongly believe that schools should not use the class background or race of their students as an excuse for underperformance, and the same is true of higher education institutions. It is precisely because I am concerned about the life chances of older students—black women and people of all nationalities—who have struggled and beaten all their expectations and those of people around them to go to university that I am concerned about standards at the LMU going forward.

I understand that the funding problems stem partly from the much-higher-than-average drop-out rate and partly from the fact that the majority of students at the LMU complete their course in four years rather than the standard three. I also understand—people have talked about bad management and the funding council—that there was a degree of collusion between the funding council and the university in misreporting for years before the former finally decided to pull the plug. That may be the responsibility of management, but it is also the responsibility of the funding council, which could and should have addressed the issue in a much more measured way, much earlier, to avoid this crisis for students.

My concern is, first and foremost, that the students should not suffer in this time of financial crisis.

Mr. Rob Wilson: I asked the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) why the drop-out figures, which the hon. Lady has mentioned, were not picked up by HEFCE or the university. Has she received any information that university departments were told to suppress drop-out information? My information is that that is exactly what they did. Far from being a cock-up, this was a conspiracy.

Ms Abbott: I do not dispute what the hon. Gentleman has said. As I have said, there was a degree of collusion between the funding council and management, which has now reached a crisis. Who is suffering? It is not the people at the funding council, but the students. That is my concern.

Going forward, I want the rights and aspirations of the students and the range of courses, as long as they are high quality, to be protected. That is particularly true of the specialities, whether cabinet making or the study of Cuba, for which the LMU is renowned. I want the quality of the education offer to my constituents not only maintained but increased. There is no reason at all—I do not care what people say about the class or colour of undergraduates—why the LMU should bump along in the bottom 10 per cent. I want standards to be maintained and driven upwards. The background of students should not be an excuse for failure in any of our educational institutions.

I want the funding council to help, by whatever mechanisms are available, the LMU to get through this period without the students suffering. I also want Ministers and the funding council to look at their funding systems and schemes to ensure that they properly reflect the realities of student bodies in such institutions.

Dr. Gibson: Given that we often look on universities as regional centres of education, and that students can move between them on exchanges, will my hon. Friend consider the possibility of financial collaboration between them, instead of rivalry? Why do they not work to support each other? The three universities should work together to serve the community—let us have some money from Imperial going into London Met.

Ms Abbott: More collaboration may well be part of the answer, but we must get the management and running of London Met right before there can be any notion of collaborating with other institutions.

Going forward, we must look at our funding mechanisms. The funding council has not treated London Met fairly; it colluded in the situation up to a certain point, but then there was a cliff-edge crash, and the university faces potential cuts.

I wrote to the Minister about this issue many months ago, but I was disappointed with the response that I received, because he simply referred me to the funding council. Let me make a general point. We in Parliament have seen all sorts of core Government functions outsourced to organisations such as the funding council over the past 20 years. Although those functions have been outsourced, they are wholly funded and owned by the Government, and Ministers cannot hide behind such institutions. I am not suggesting that, having set up the funding council, Ministers should second-guess every decision, but it should be possible for the Government to intervene in special cases, if Members of Parliament have come to them. London Met is a special case, and Ministers have hidden behind the funding council for too long.

There is a range of issues about the management of London Met and about how we can help it through the present period financially so that students do not suffer. However, there is also an issue about whether the funding council considers the circumstances of institutions that have high drop-out rates despite the best efforts of their staff. When colleagues come to the Minister with special cases such as that of London Met, I urge him not to brush us off by referring us to the funding council. I think that every Member present has written asking him to focus on the special issues at London Met. Although there may be singular problems at the university, events there also raise general issues about further and higher education, which it is wholly appropriate for a Minister to focus on and get involved in.

Jeremy Corbyn: In the many letters that my hon. Friend has had from her constituents, has anyone said whether they have an alternative place to go to in the event of their department or course closing? What are their thoughts for the future?

Ms Abbott: The reason why I am so concerned about this issue is that many of the students who have written to me are really in a panic. There may be alternatives, but these students do not know about them. They have often screwed up all their courage and got together every penny that they have to go to university, which is something that they never thought that they would do when they were younger. Now, thanks to a combination of the university’s management and the actions of the funding council, the rug has been pulled from under them in what are difficult times for all our constituents. People really are in a panic, and they deserve better from the management of London Met and from Ministers, because this issue has been bubbling under from a long time.

Redundancies may be inevitable at London Met, and more may need to be done to improve management there. We may also need to move away from an assumption that institutions can excuse underperformance—whether academic or management underperformance—by pointing to undergraduates’ class or race background. That is no excuse for anything. All those things may be true, but I ask Ministers at this point to focus on the students, for whom going to university means so much more than it did even to me, the Minister and other Members in the Chamber. The Minister should focus on the students and stop hiding behind the funding council. He should intervene to ensure that students do not suffer in this transition period and that the funding council knows that it cannot apply one-size-fits-all funding solutions to universities up and down the country whose demographics and social context may be very different.

We owe these students something. We should not have spent 12 years as a Government talking about education, education, education. We should not have spent 12 years as a Government talking about skills, the need to go forward and increasing access. Whatever problems it may have had in the past, London Met has reached a crisis, and we have not stepped in swiftly to protect the interests of the students and my constituents.

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