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20 May 2009 : Column 437WH—continued

It is worth remembering that.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what he asserts in relation to London Metropolitan university—I entirely agree with him—also applies to a number of the other new universities and colleges created since 1992, many of which are within a short distance of central London?

Jeremy Corbyn: Yes, it applies to other universities and colleges, but the extent of cuts proposed for London Metropolitan and the loss of student places does not apply to others. The Met is in a class of its own, given the financial problems that it faces, and that is why I am pleased to have secured this special debate.

Dr. Gibson: Does my hon. Friend agree that teaching in universities these days has an international aspect? The university’s institute for Cuban studies, a subject that is interesting in itself, attracts attention from students across the world, who go there to talk about what is happening in the Caribbean and other parts of the world. More and more universities in this country depend on international contacts and on students from overseas paying astronomical fees. It seems to me that the London Met has started something by looking at poorer countries with poorer students. It is making relationships across the world, and that is worth a five-star rating.

Jeremy Corbyn: The university has been innovative through many of its special sections, departments and courses. The institute for Cuban studies is a good example, as is the working lives research institute. The university should be congratulated on and praised for establishing courses on such subjects as sustainable tourism.

My concern, however, is about the problems faced by the university. The HEFC has a duty and obligation to count the number of students in colleges, and module and course completions. Essentially, the funding of the rest of the university’s life is based on those figures. When an audit was undertaken by the HEFC, it concluded that student numbers and completions had been over-counted. As a result, huge cuts have been made to the university’s budget for future years and there has been a request for repayment. We are talking about very large sums: £38 million is to be repaid, and about £10 million a year will be cut from the university’s funding indefinitely. As a result, 550 full-time equivalent jobs—that probably adds up to 800 people, because many staff are part-time—will go. In addition, many jobs for hourly paid lecturing staff and others on short-term contracts will be lost, although the number is unquantified. Student numbers
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will fall by about a third, so 5,000 student places will be lost if this financial package goes through. That would be devastating for any institution.

I have two questions for the Minister in this part of my contribution. First, does the HEFC’s counting process take sufficient account of the difficulties faced by some students, especially those from poorer backgrounds, those living in difficult housing conditions and those facing other related issues? As the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) pointed out, such people do not necessarily complete the whole course, but they might well use the modules that they do complete to gain a place somewhere else or to better themselves in some other way. I get the feeling that a degree of punishment might be involved for those students and types of completions.

Secondly, on a difficult and more delicate area, what happened within the university to allow this systematic approach to reporting to lead to such a devastating consequence for the university itself? Apparently the figures became known to the vice-chancellor and the university’s governing body some time last year. In December, the governing body discussed redundancies but, bizarrely, the unions were not informed of the possible redundancies until two months later. A question mark therefore hangs over the management style of the former vice-chancellor and the flow of information. May we please have an independent inquiry to which unions, staff and many others can give evidence so that we can establish the truth?

The vice-chancellor subsequently tendered his resignation, but he will remain on the university’s payroll for a further six months. He therefore remains an employee of the university, albeit not in office, while a further vice-chancellor has been appointed.

Dr. Gibson: Will my hon. Friend communicate to the Chamber what the vice-chancellor’s salary might be—vice-chancellors are known to be shelling it in?

Jeremy Corbyn: I do not know what Brian Roper’s salary is. I believe that the figure is known, but all I know is that it has many noughts after the first figure—I think that there are at least six digits. Others might be able to help.

Ms Abbott: My hon. Friend might wish to know that, as I understand it, Mr. Roper’s salary is in the vicinity of £150,000, although I do not care to speculate about his expenses.

Jeremy Corbyn: I do not want this debate to turn into speculation about Brian Roper’s salary.

Ms Abbott: Why not?

Jeremy Corbyn: Because, although it is important and interesting, I am far more concerned about the loss of 550 jobs and 5,000 students potentially losing the opportunity for a university education.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Last week, I attempted to bring together both sides in my office to try to figure out whether there was any common ground. Sadly, the
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managers refused to meet the others, so we had to have two separate meetings, which did not actually work. The point was made that we must consider not only the numbers, which he is quite right to put to the Minister, but another issue: the university has some specialities that are almost unique to it, such as cabinet-making. The only other university in the UK that offers such a course is Buckingham, which is a private university, and the people we are talking about are not the kind who will go there to get these skills. This is not just about the raw numbers, but about what happens when those numbers fall. When that happens, some of these specialities will simply disappear, which will be a major loss.

Jeremy Corbyn: That is a very fair point. Clearly, a relatively small but specialised department, such as the one to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, cannot be reduced by one third. Either it gets closed down altogether, or it is funded properly. Some departments must either be funded properly or not be there at all, because otherwise the situation is simply not viable. This degree of cuts calls into question the viability of many courses and, indeed, much of the university itself.

I am interested to hear that the right hon. Gentleman attempted to meet people from the university. When I first heard about these problems, I contacted the university and the two major unions involved—Unison and the University and College Union. I discussed with the unions their concerns, the problems that their members face and all the rest of it. I asked repeatedly for meetings with the vice-chancellor and the board of governors. One of the meetings was cancelled almost an hour before it was due to be held, and that is just one chapter in a series of such events. Only after I had met the HEFC, together with representatives of Unison and the UCU, did the university get back in touch and ask for a meeting to discuss the situation. It was concerned that I had gone to the HEFC without discussing it with the university first. Well, I am sorry, but I am the Member of Parliament for the area and, like all hon. Members—we all have constituents—I must go wherever I can go to get answers to my problems. However, the vice-chancellor has now resigned and a new one has been appointed.

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Due to my former job as shadow Minister for higher education, I have been following this matter for some time. Perhaps he can help with something that has been puzzling me. Why does he believe that Government figures show that, in 2005-06 and 2006-07, the LMU reported non-completion rates of between 2 and 4 per cent., when it would be expected that such a university would report figures closer to 30 per cent? Why did the university get it so wrong? Why did the HEFC not pick it up much earlier?

Jeremy Corbyn: That is a very interesting question—I am looking for the answer myself. It has been reported in the Times Higher Education. I had raised in this House the question of the very high drop-out and non-completion rate from that university, and suddenly it fell to a very low figure. I hope that the Minister will answer that question. If not, I hope that the university or the HEFC can provide some answers. The questions
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that we are asking—I am not speaking from a particularly partisan point of view—all point to the need for a proper inquiry into what went wrong. Above all, we need to try to get through this crisis so that we see not the decline of the institution, but its sustainability and development. It is important that I make the point that I have not come here to bury the LMU any more than anybody else in the Chamber.

Other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall not say a great deal more. I would like the Minister to understand the degree of anger and concern locally and within the teaching and student bodies. I hope that the new vice-chancellor, Mr. Alfred Morris, who just left the university of Lampeter and was previously at the university of the West of England—he has a reputation of dealing with places in trouble—understands the importance of taking staff into his confidence, of working with them to get around the problems, and of not heading solely down the road of redundancies. He should also be absolutely clear about the finances involved.

As I understand it, the HEFC has loaned £38 million to the university to help it through this particular crisis, and it is prepared to negotiate the repayment time. The predictions of the university’s future financial problems are exaggerated in the extreme, which leads the board in one direction only—that of immediate redundancies. The board has advertised for voluntary redundancies, but did not get full take-up. If it persists with this financial strategy, we will be looking at compulsory redundancies. A day of strike action has already been called by the UCU and there might well be others. A demonstration is planned this weekend in the Holloway road in support of the university and its staff. I hope that the Minister will recognise the strength of feeling around this issue and take the following action. First, he must set up an inquiry into what has happened at the university. Secondly, he must provide us with all information on the funding that has already been given to the university, and on the current arrangements that have been offered by the HEFC. He must be prepared, if necessary, to intervene on this matter.

I was grateful that the Minister replied to my parliamentary question but, with the greatest respect, sympathy is not enough. The HEFC is funded wholly by the Government. We expect it to act on behalf of Government policy, and we expect Ministers to intervene when necessary to protect jobs, courses and students. Neither those who are threatened with losing their jobs nor those who will be unable to go to university in the future are responsible for the auditing, the funding, or the accounting arrangements, and I do not see why they should be punished.

Dr. Gibson: I guess my hon. Friend may be able to help me in this matter. The head of the HEFC is now moving to another university vice-chancellor’s job somewhere in the Midlands. Does he think that there could be a problem arising from the fact that that organisation has gone solid at the base?

Jeremy Corbyn: Not at all. Some weeks ago, I had a very useful meeting with Professor David Eastwood, the former chief executive of the HEFC, and both the unions. The professor has now gone to be vice-chancellor of the university of Birmingham and his successor has
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been appointed. I and a number of colleagues are meeting them in the House on Friday afternoon to continue the dialogue.

I want the Minister to tell me that the Government understand our feelings. I want him to say how wrong it is to punish staff and students for the misdemeanours of others. We want an open public inquiry and, above all, we want action to defend London Metropolitan university. Such institutions are the gateway to education for many people who, for so long, have been denied access to university-standard education. At a time of crisis and recession, people turn to such institutions for opportunities to expand their lives and their education. Can we show some support, sympathy and understanding of the fact that it is those who caused this crisis who should be punished for it? Those who did not cause the crisis should not have to pay the price for the misdemeanours of others. We need this university and this opportunity, and I look to the Minister for assistance in his reply.

2.53 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this important debate. As he knows, one of the constituent colleges of the LMU at the time of its merger in 2002 was London Guildhall university, which is located in my constituency. At that time, there was a view—it may have been an urban myth—that there was central Government pressure to create London’s largest university.

I am lucky enough to represent a number of universities, including some internationally acclaimed names, such as Imperial college, which is alma mater for my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), the London School of Economics and King’s college London. I am every bit as proud to represent the LMU. I worked quite closely—perhaps not so much in recent years—with a number of people from what was the London Guildhall university and is now the LMU in relation to its phenomenally successful Aimhigher initiative, the outreach of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his contribution.

The LMU appeals to a much wider range of students than many other universities. Moreover, it tries to appeal to a catchment area that would, to a large extent, have been excluded some 20 or 30 years ago. As I have said, there are a number of similar universities either within London or just beyond London, which have an international flavour and a large number of mature students. As someone who was the product of the state school, albeit a grammar school, and who ended up going to university at Oxford, I am aware that we have to extend far more broadly. I am saddened by the fact that because my old college is poorer than most Oxford colleges, it has to charge higher fees. As a result, the league tables suggest that it has very few state school students—around 40 per cent. rather than 60 per cent. However, that is not because it has not tried to reach out in the way in which the hon. Gentleman has suggested.

Dr. Gibson: I have to rise to the bait. The hon. Gentleman did not name his college. Will he tell me how poor it really is, so I can check it out?

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Mr. Field: I suppose that was putting my foot in it. I was at St. Edmund hall, which is not a terribly wealthy college. Founded in the 13th century, it only achieved independence from its richer neighbour Queen’s college in 1958. We will move on. I will not rise further to the bait of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) on this or any other related matters.

I respect the fact that the LMU has plans to take responsibility for its own problems. Under its new senior management, it has a plan in place. While I share a number of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Islington, North and am interested to hear what the Minister has to say in that regard, it has to be said that no university is owed a living. Although I appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman worries about the institution and the number of jobs at stake, I have a bigger concern about the students, who have expended considerable money and goodwill in signing up for a course. For the course or the resources to be cut halfway through is tough, particularly given the recessionary pressures. I graduated just over 20 years ago, and left university without any debt. I had a full grant for which I am very appreciative, especially when I speak to undergraduates today about the huge debts that they are racking up. In many cases, mature students eke out relatively modest savings to study at universities such as the LMU. For them to have the course cut or the lecturers removed halfway through is little short of disastrous.

The Government must think seriously about where the university sector goes from here. The sector receives some £8 billion in public money, yet, in many ways, universities face very little threat of closure if they are seen to fail. I worry that there are some failing universities. There is an assumption that they should always be shored up regardless of their difficulties. Representing as I do the financial services sector, an argument could be made—probably by the hon. Member for Islington, North—that we have spent a lot of money bailing out banks. I have not always supported Government policy in that regard. There is a fundamental issue of moral hazard. We have an environment now in which people—whether they are vice-chancellors, governors of universities or directors of international investment banks—feel that however much trouble they get into, they will be bailed out, which can only encourage the very worst practices.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I do not want to detain my hon. Friend for very long, but I want to make a point. He has talked about the generality of universities. I guess that most people would agree that no institution has the right to a living, but this is a particular and peculiar type of university. The hon. Member for Islington, North has pointed out the nature of the people that it takes through its doors. It takes a great deal more effort to encourage those people to believe that they have a right to be in such a place. Sometimes they have no family support and struggle while they are at university. That is unlike many of middle classes, who take it as their right to move on to higher education. These students do not believe that they have such a right and think that the whole culture is against them; they are making a break. Therefore, this is a special case, and we need to think carefully if we want to encourage more people from such areas to have a shot at improving their lives. Universities such as this must be sorted out, so they can do just that.

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Mr. Field: My right hon. Friend makes a valid case. It is fair to say that a number of universities—Thames Valley and Luton, for example, which are no further away from his constituency—have a similar ethos. Indeed, one of the difficulties facing the LMU is that it got too big and unwieldy following too many mergers, when it should have had more of a collegiate feel.

The harsh reality—perhaps I am taking words out of the Minister’s mouth—is that the LMU is being forced to repay more than £50 million after auditors found that the drop-out rates were higher than stated. It has been overpaid through the funding mechanism by some £15 million a year since 2005, which is why it is in its current difficulties.

We should have substantial public investment in higher education and, clearly, the nation is going to face some very difficult times with public expenditure in the years to come. Although we should not necessarily ring-fence funding, I probably share the view of many hon. Members in saying that we should ensure that we do not penny-pinch too much on education, including higher education and, in particular, on one of the biggest Cinderella areas, further education, and on compulsory school education up to age 16 or beyond, depending on how the law changes in future.

We also need to maintain a commitment, as my right hon. Friend has said, to expanding and widening the social mix of students, but our universities need to be much more publicly accountable. I am extremely fearful that we lack such accountability. There is a sense that the LMU is too big and unusual to be allowed to fail. I am not saying that we should pull the plug on it or on other universities, but it would be bad to send the message that however incompetently a university or whatever institution is run, the Government are ready to bail it out. Institutions throughout the public sector, whether universities or, dare I say it, financial institutions, should not be too big to fail, not least because that might encourage risk-taking and sloppy management in future generations.

[Mrs. Janet Dean in the Chair]

I realise that other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate. London Metropolitan, part of which is in my constituency, finds itself in a very sad situation, and this debate is important. I appreciate that much more work will go on between the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the institution in future. However, the message has come through loud and clear that a lot of students, who would not have had the opportunity to experience first-class, first-rate further and higher education in previous eras, run the risk of missing out on many of the dreams and aspirations that they have worked hard to build up. It is vital that something is done, but I appreciate that some of the Department’s problems with the institution will be difficult to solve. I am nevertheless cheered to the extent that there at least seems to be a plan, and I am encouraged by the new management, even if they have some troublesome months and years to come.

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