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University debt

Dear UK academics (and anyone else who has opinions on the subject),

I read that London Met owes over 50 million pounds back to the government because of poor accounting for student completion rates. As a result, it will need to lay off 300+ staff members. Kingston University is also affected. These are both ex-polytechnics, but that doesn't mean only ex-polys will be affected as audits go on.

How realistic is the repayment threat? Are student completion rates (as opposed to student enrollment rates) the entire basis for universities' public funding in the UK England (and possibly Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), or is it more complicated than that?

I know a number of ex-polys (perhaps more) are in poor financial shape. Is this purely a result of overly-optimistic expansion rates after becoming universities, or are there other major factors as well? Is it a problem with universities more widely right now, and I just happen to be more aware of this subset of them? (I'm under the impression that their financial problems are not directly related to the recession, but to other factors.)

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( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
sioneva
Jan. 28th, 2009 05:28 pm (UTC)
Interesting - I look forward to reading the responses, because despite having worked so closely with the University of Manchester, I know next to nothing about how their government funding works.
sioneva
Jan. 28th, 2009 05:29 pm (UTC)
Although of course MU is not an ex-poly, as I'm aware ;)
_nicolai_
Jan. 28th, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
Universities are, as I understand it, funded by the number of students they have enrolled. Hence, a drop-out who is not un-counted properly will lead to overfunding.
There are also some funding bonuses, I think, which are related to completion rates, but that is not the bulk of their funding.
owlfish
Jan. 28th, 2009 05:45 pm (UTC)
Does this mean that, in UK university parlance, enrollment only happens once, at the very beginning of a degree course? (And thus tracking drop-outs is the only way of tracking deductions from that number?)
rhube
Jan. 28th, 2009 07:34 pm (UTC)
I think I've had to enroll every year for each of my degrees (and still do). I certainly have to register every year, but I don't know how that relates, in technical terms, to enrollment.
daisho
Jan. 28th, 2009 11:01 pm (UTC)
I, for what it's worth, didn't have to enrol after my first-year matriculation, but that could be a function of the Tripos system.
m31andy
Jan. 28th, 2009 06:00 pm (UTC)
How HEFCE Allocates Its Funding.

Note, this is ONLY for England (as the devolveds have their own processes)

From the original article it looks like instead of actually counting heads, a percentage drop-out rate is applied to the number of people enrolled at the beginning of the year and this has been proven to be inaccurate in the audit.

I can't comment on the perceived clawback by HEFCE.
owlfish
Jan. 28th, 2009 06:12 pm (UTC)
I knew that Scottish universities begin at a different age, but from this, I still failed to extrapolate the obvious: they (and the other devolved governments) are different systems. Thank you for the clarification - and for the link to the policy document!
rozallin
Jan. 28th, 2009 06:39 pm (UTC)
Scottish universities start at the same age, but the qualifications administered by the Scottish Qualifications Authority aren't equivalent in UCAS points to GCSEs and A-Levels, so Scottish undergraduate courses are typically four years duration rather than three.
rhube
Jan. 28th, 2009 07:35 pm (UTC)
Scottish students tend to go at 17 or 18, rather than 18 or 19, though. I presumed this was because secondary education finished earlier?
rozallin
Jan. 28th, 2009 07:45 pm (UTC)
Well, in the fifth year, you can take up to 5 Highers, and since typical Scottish university admission requirements ask for 4 Highers you could skip sixth year and go to university at 17, but at my secondary school, very few people did so and the vast majority stayed until the sixth year and just took more Highers and Advanced Highers instead.
la_marquise_de_
Jan. 28th, 2009 06:20 pm (UTC)
It's yet another legacy of Thatcherism, sadly.
rozallin
Jan. 28th, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)
Personal experience of a London Metropolitan University dropout
I dropped-out of London Metropolitan University in 2004 after studying there for two semesters. My main reason was financial, as there was a delay with my initial student loan payment and I rapidly went into debt as I had to cover my accommodation and tuition fees with short-term hardship loans and high-interest consumer credit. With my family unable to support me financially, I found it very difficult to focus on my studies and I didn't feel I could afford to continue with the course. I also didn't feel that I would gain enough from the university (the teaching quality varied widely, but was pretty poor overall relative to my experience with the Open University, and it was during the merger when the lecturers were on strike for most of my time there) to warrant the £24,000 debt I would graduate with.

Some of the other reasons why I think drop-out rates are high are as follows:
  • The entry requirements for the courses are quite low and from my experience many students were not sufficiently prepared for undergraduate level study, which led to a high drop-out rate in the first semester.

  • A third of the University's intake were International students, who dropped out within weeks either because living in London was far more expensive than they realised or because they applied for a course to get a student visa to gain entry into the country and then 'disappeared' into work.

  • There were a high number of students at the university from low-income households where there is little to no financial support available for students. Although the university got extra funding to support students, student support/welfare was overwhelmed with people.

  • London Metropolitan University has suffered for years with strikes and disputes over pay and conditions, especially during and just after the merger of the two universities, which put off many students.
I think that we need a radical rethink on public funding of higher education to find better ways of widening participation across all socioeconomic groups and at the same time getting rid of this need for universities to fill their courses with people who aren't quite ready or prepared for university-level study in order to meet their costs.
owlfish
Jan. 29th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Personal experience of a London Metropolitan University dropout
Thank you for this. It's good to have some history of their current problems.

I've been really struck by how much accountability has changed in the past 10+ years. C. could get away with skipping an entire module, with hardly any noise about it from his faculty, and still pass it, based on the exam. For my current English employer, the students start to receive reminder emails about potential loss of funding if they miss more than two lectures.
non_trivial
Jan. 30th, 2009 04:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Personal experience of a London Metropolitan University dropout
I'm don't think Imperial cared (3 or 4 years ago) about lecture attendance as long as coursework was done and exams passed, although some lecturers might have had a word if you were never there.

Sarah's experience on her current teaching is similar to yours; she's expected to pass on unauthorised absences to students' personal tutors, as well as if they're late more than once. And this is at Queen Mary's, so presumably their intake isn't quite the same as a former poly. But perhaps this is more a result of students not being prepared for the self-directed university environment in general.
rhube
Jan. 28th, 2009 07:30 pm (UTC)
I've heard that generally (comparitively) the unis are doing OK in the credit crunch. However, although I do get a weekly media feed on HE through my admin job, I must admit that I haven't been keeping as close an eye on it all as I could have...
a_d_medievalist
Jan. 28th, 2009 08:15 pm (UTC)
There are similar things happening (and have been happening) in the US for a while, most especially with community college funding (and especially in those cc systems that aren't part of a well-articulated higher ed system). I think part of it is that CCs and ex-polytechnics tend to be more market-driven in their offerings, competing for FTEs in ways that can't really be sustained when enrollments go down. At least that's my impression.

Completion rates do get factored in here, in terms of accreditation -- you have to somehow explain how you can take in more than you matriculate. Based on my own experience, the more students you enroll who really might not be prepared (academically and/or financially), the more you lose.


It's not that other institutions aren't also victims, but I think R1s and even traditional selective SLACs over here, and the major unis over there don't have to justify their existence *as much* in terms of, 'will this get me a job'? At least, that's one of the subtexts I noticed in the ever-awful Stanley Fish's last NYT column (see the chatter on Mediev-L last week)

gillo
Jan. 28th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC)
My impression is that former polytechnics are suffering, but not as much as former teacher-training colleges (Edghill, Nene, Derby, for example.) because there's a very clear hierarchy; the older universities have much higher entrance requirements, tend to get brighter, better-prepared students and thus lose fewer - the drop-out rate at somewhere like Durham or UCL is massively lower than at even a middle-ranking former poly. Also, the students who go to the higher-status universities tend to be more savvy and more likely to have families capable of giving some financial help. The student loan system has tended to exaggerate differences and reduce possile social mobility.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )