British universities have wrongly claimed tens of millions of pounds from the taxpayer for students who did not complete their courses, it has been disclosed in a report by The Telegraph.
Up to £86 million was paid out in error over the past four years, according to a series of audits by the Government’s funding watchdog in the wake of one scandal earlier uncovered.
More than half of universities checked as part of the process were found to be under-reporting dropout rates, a series of secret emails disclose.
They also show how government officials privately accused some universities of “artfully misconstruing data” in a “co-ordinated approach” in order to get higher grants.
The disclosure that universities had received tens of millions of pounds to which they were not entitled comes as higher education sector faces major cuts to reduce Britain’s swollen deficit.
Last year the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) ordered London Metropolitan University to pay back £36.5 million after it submitted inaccurate data on dropout rates.
An inquiry found that senior officials knew that the university was using too wide a definition of student “completion rates” to exclude those who had changed to other courses or postponed their studies.
The then Vice Chancellor and governing body were forced to resign in the wake of the scandal.
But a separate series of audits by Hefce found almost £50 million had been wrongly allocated to other universities – much of it because dropout rates were again being underestimated.
The figure largely relates to former colleges which became universities in the 1990s.
The total figure of £86 million would be enough to fund one university for an entire year.
Details of emails involving officials at the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) – now the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) – and Hefce in the wake of the London Met scandal also disclose that they believed some universities were deliberately under-reporting dropout rates.
In one email, published by a Sunday newspaper, a BIS official writes: “Hefce have told us privately and unofficially that [there may be] dislike among some institutions of the definition used for non-completion and a ‘co-ordinated approach’ to ‘artfully misconstruing it’.”
Some new universities believe that Hefce applies to strict a definition to con-completion rates, so that students who temporarily postpone their studies for personal reasons are counted as having dropped out.
A spokesman for Hefce stressed that the over-claiming at London Met was an extreme case adding: “We give out around £7.5 billion a year so we have to put it in that context.”
Source: The Daily Telegraph