Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Cap Has Burst - Expect a Flood of Fines

Magazine article Times Higher Education

The Cap Has Burst - Expect a Flood of Fines

Article excerpt

Stiff fines await over-recruiters, with London Met facing a possible Pounds 6m bill. John Morgan reports.

English universities have exceeded their numbers cap by thousands of students this year as applicants flocked to avoid higher tuition fees, and large fines are expected, with London Metropolitan University alone facing a hit of up to Pounds 6 million.

Over-recruitment for 2011-12 is as high as 25,000 across the sector, some believe. That would represent a huge rise on last year, when universities exceeded their cap by just 2,150 places.

Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of London Met, said the fine levied against his university by the Higher Education Funding Council for England would be between Pounds 5 million and Pounds 6 million. Although London Met had appealed and cited "substantial mitigation", it had nevertheless made a Pounds 5.1 million provision for the fine in its accounts, Professor Gillies added.

Such a penalty would be more than double the size of the largest fine levied for over-recruitment last year, when London South Bank University faced a Pounds 2.2 million charge.

Times Higher Education reported in October that some universities might have deliberately over-recruited in 2011-12, expecting to compensate by under-recruiting in 2012-13 under the higher fees regime and thus avoid incurring continued fines.

London Met - which still owes Hefce Pounds 25 million over a separate, previous failure to report student numbers correctly - said its over-recruitment was accidental. Exceeding the cap was the result of recruitment being left open too long.

In that time, Professor Gillies had been away and his deputy was in charge. Noting that recruitment was a "delegated function", Professor Gillies said: "Yes, it's true I was away on my annual leave for a lot of this period, but I take responsibility for this - as I take responsibility for everything I do at London Met."

He pointed out that the over-recruitment meant access to university for students who might otherwise have been shut out.

Ministers mean business

In their grant letter to Hefce this month, Vince Cable, the business secretary, and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, said their department's budget faces "significant and increasing pressures. Over-recruitment of students in 2011-12 has contributed to these by creating unanticipated pressure on student support costs."

Hefce said it would not detail other fines, or the sector's total, until it publishes its response to the government's grant letter on 22 March.

Student numbers are capped to control the cost of student loans and other support, which are subsidised by the taxpayer. …

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