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Go private, London Met boss tells Oxbridge

V-c says government funding should be used to 'transform lives', reports Rebecca Attwood

Oxford and Cambridge universities should go private because government money is better spent on universities "that transform people's lives" rather than on "finishing schools" for the privileged.

This is the view of Brian Roper, vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, one of the most socially inclusive universities. In an interview with Times Higher Education this week, he also said:

- the cost of supporting student diversity is not properly reflected in the university funding system;

- London Met will have to "rebalance" its drive to be socially inclusive by raising student entry requirements and trying to attract more "traditional" students;

- the university will seek to carry out international-standard research;

- a "hotchpotch" of initiatives from government is making it difficult for some institutions to survive;

- there are too many universities in the UK.

In a stinging attack on Oxbridge, Mr Roper said that he found recent comments on access by heads of the universities "morally offensive".

Alison Richard, vice-chancellor of Cambridge, reportedly argued that the university's core mission was not promoting social mobility, and Lord Patten, the chancellor of Oxford, said that the university had "no chance whatsoever" of meeting its access targets.

In response, Mr Roper said that Oxbridge appeared to be "actively rejecting" government policy. "My response to that is to say 'you want to be free? Get free. Don't take any state funding, just go.' That means no teaching grant, no QR (quality research) grant - that should be kept for the state universities," he said.

"The money could be better used in places which transform people's lives rather than serving as rather superior finishing schools, which is what these other places are about."

He said: "You take the money, you deliver the objectives. If you don't like the deal, don't take the money."

The fact that London Met had more black Caribbean students than the whole of the Russell Group of 20 research-led universities combined was "a scandal", he added.

London Met is in financial turmoil after the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced that it would reduce its teaching grant by £15 million due to problems with the university's data on student drop-out rates.

The university's draft strategic plan for 2009-18 talks of recruiting "a wider range of able students", including "more traditional" students, and of raising entry standards and progression rates. But Mr Roper denied that this was a move away from the university's widening participation mission.

"If the cost of supporting student diversity is not to be properly reflected in the income, it cannot be made sustainable, so we have to change the balance. We are not abandoning the historic objective, it is a rebalancing," he said.

Mr Roper said this would mean looking for different students. "Why not some students who've been to a good state school? There's plenty of them, they just pass us to go to UCL, so I'd like to catch a few of them. What about some kids from private school - that would make for some diversity, wouldn't it? I haven't found any members of the Bullingdon Club here yet, but I'm looking!"

London Met, he said, was also aiming to become the first post-1992 to be internationally recognised for the quality of its "applied research", such as work on human rights, social justice and drug intervention.

Mr Roper criticised higher education policy in England for being "a hotchpotch of initiatives", which made it difficult for some higher education institutions to survive, and said that raising the cap on student tuition fees would expose that.

Social mobility had not improved, which meant that there was as much need for widening participation work as ever, he said.

He also believed there were too many universities in Britain. "Why we need another 20, God only knows. My advice to the civic leaders of those places (hoping for a university centre) is, good luck. Don't be born poor. If you are born poor in this country, you die poor. That's what we are dealing with, but we aren't going to die because we are fighters ... We aren't going to roll over and we aren't giving up," he added.

"If this institution, with its commitment, its staff, its track record, cannot do it here, it cannot be done."

- More mergers between universities are likely, David Lammy, the Higher Education Minister, warned this week. Speaking at a Universities UK conference on the threats posed by a forthcoming decline in the number of traditional undergraduates in the UK, he said: "In a commercial sector with equivalent levels of economic activity and so many providers, there would have to be many mergers over the next few decades, far more than we have seen in higher education." But he added that such decisions should not be top-down, and that the Government's role was to create conditions for the sector to find its own solutions.

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

DEMANDS FOR RETHINK ON RESEARCH FUNDING

Post-1992 universities are calling for research funding to be distributed "more fairly".

After the last research assessment exercise, 76 per cent of all QR (quality-related) research funding went to only 19 universities, with the money focused on research of international significance. But Million+, which represents 28 post-1992 universities, thinks at least 10 per cent of the annual QR budget should be invested in universities that carry out research of national importance.

Chris Mullin, MP for Sunderland South, has secured an adjournment debate on research funding in the House of Commons, due to take place after Times Higher Education went to press.

Baroness Blackstone, vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, said the RAE had become "super-selective", and money for research-informed teaching should be better spread across the sector. Caroline Gipps, vice-chancellor of the University of Wolverhampton, said her university did important research and that it was "quite wrong" to receive no QR funding for it.

Readers' comments (6)

  • It was interesting to note Mr Ropers comment that "if you are born poor in this country, you die poor". Mr Roper as he constantly reminds us was "born poor". In 2006/07 his pay package was worth £276,000 (an 11% increase on 2005/06). In the 2007/08 year Mr Roper and all senior managers received a "performance bonus" despite the financial crisis brought about by their submission to HEFCE of defective data of a period of at least 3 years.

    On the other hand the staff (who may or may not have been born poor) will not be receiving the 5% pay rise this month. Indeed as things stand we will be receiving nothing. At the same time his "vision" for the University involves "reducing reliance on permanent staff and increasing numbers of fixed term and variable-hours staff".

    So is Mr Roper a staunch defender of the poor and underprivileged or a hypocritical fat cat?

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  • It is very good to hear the Vice-Chancellor of my university vigorously defending the idea of widening participation. It is also good that he states the huge issues of concerns re the Government’s non-joined-up thinking (and resourcing) on the issue.

    However, it would be refreshing if such fighting talk were to include recognition that it is the staff of institutions such as ours who are the ones who day in and day out try to deliver on the promise of such participation – particularly, when that is often against a backdrop of locally engineered staff cuts, squeezing of resources and an over-the-top centralisation and taylorist approach to the management of said staff.

    A couple of quotes are given in the article in reference to our draft ‘strategic’ plan. Well here are a few more:

    ‘An increasingly flexible workforce will be required to enable the University to be market oriented and flexible enough to switch between funding streams according to demand’

    ‘Fluctuations in income will require increasing flexibility in the staffing model, increasingly reducing reliance on permanent staff and increasing numbers of fixed term and variable-hours staff.’

    ‘The activity of teaching will be unpicked and a range of different roles or activities will develop including: product design; PR/marketing; teacher/deliverer; assessor; ‘after sales’/customer (alumni?) relations management; administration’

    ‘The University will become more customer focused and will operate increasingly as a private sector institution’

    ‘Contractual arrangements will need to support flexibility in both the volume of staff hours and the nature and scope of duties.’

    I am yet to hear in all of this fighting talk about the defence of widening participation how such ‘strategic’ moves to resemble a private-sector institution - with the concomitant increased casualisation of its staff and commodification of its ‘product’ - will in any way whatsoever help our non-traditional students (sorry, ‘customer base’) to succeed.

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  • The current university situation is a joke laughed at - and understood by - very few people. Everybody knows that standards are hugely variable both among and within the universities. We are supposed to be aiming to admit 50% of the age cohort - yet barely 45% of the cohort, nationally, have Cs in English/Maths GCSE.

    I teach at London Met; my children went to Leeds/York and to Cambridge. Cambridge was no party; it was immensely hard work, as were Leeds and York, and the standards were superb in both cases. Finishing schools they were not!!! It is, however, arguable that any university - including ours - can act to some extent as a "finishing school" but not in the debutantish way that I think the VC means.

    Our problem is that we are much too big, scattered all round London.Yet rather than trying to localise operations to make them manageable, (which happens in very many other universities, including Cambridge) the cash-strapped university tries, in vain, to make them work by centralising the admininistration.

    The UK needs a variety of different types of institution. It needs ours, and it needs Oxbridge, and both can contribute, in different ways, to national welfare. As an ex-economist, if I was to do a cost-benefit calculation to compare the net benefits of any two universities, I cannot imagine that in the end, our benefits would be so very superior to Oxbridge's.

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  • Would the Vice Chancellor like to commentate on how he intends to house these 'traditional students', whilst the university is currently going through the process of selling off its residences. Rather than replacing them it is now advertising the expensive and overated private sector halls and residences, that are not actually exclusive to the university. This is not the only example of dwindling facilities within the university

    The fact is London Met (and I went there) cannot possibly attract 'traditional' students when it has no 'traditional facilities' available that the 'traditional' university student requires, needs and expects.

    The work the university does is good, how many other universities give the opportunities this institution does to people outside of the traditional university model? Not many, but it has to improve its student experience and that means concentrating not only on its teaching and administration but its facilties too.

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  • Mr Roper's comments show that he has no understanding of Oxbridge, and to call it a finishing school is frankly ridiculous. The one standard that matters in Oxbridge and the other top universities is academic excellence, this has nothing to do with race, colour, religion, school, sex or wealth. Therefore to suggest that universities should have to meet percentage criteria, is saying that they have to compromise and admit people because of these other factors and not because they deserve to be there.

    There is a higher percentage of private school students at Oxbridge because they do, although we are not supposed to admit it, receive a better education, and are therefore better prepared for the Oxbridge degrees.

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  • Mr Roper's remarks are both ignorant and offensive.

    My mother was a cleaner during most of my childhood, until she became disabled. My father was a warehouseman and later alternated between clerical work and unemployment. We lived above a shop, where I shared a bedroom with my sister until my last year at school - a comprehensive school.

    Having taken my BA at Oxford I completed two master's degrees, earning both of them with distinction. I am now a research student at a Russell Group university. I wonder, therefore, how Mr Roper would defend his assertion that Oxford did not transform my life.

    Oxford is certainly no finishing school. The academic regime is relentless. For me, a typical week demanded one or two essays as well as commentaries, translations, and other exercises. I was also desperately unhappy, as are many students at Oxford and Cambridge. But I did receive an intellectual experience of unique intensity. I was part of the small but important group of students for whom an Oxbridge education is the only one worth experiencing.

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