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London Metropolitan University

April 29, 2009

London Metropolitan University

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?

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.