1998 who made a splash?

January 1, 1999

Claire Sanders reflects on the stories and people who made the news last year


The legacy of Lord Dearing's inquiry into higher education dominated 1998.It began with the Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which was to stop universities charging students more than the government-decreed Pounds 1,000 tuition fee, stumbling through the Lords.

Home secretary Jack Straw had a nasty new year when his son faced prosecution for drug dealing. One student pusher told The THES just how easy it was to sell drugs - and how he needed the money to supplement his grant.

Ian Wilmut, whose team at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh cloned sheep, gave an Amnesty lecture on genetics and revealed that he had recently had a painful conversation with a mother who wanted her dead child cloned. Cloning individual human beings is, he said, "quite simply dangerous".

All change at the top: industrialist Sir Michael Bett was appointed to chair the new independent pay review committee for higher education, another Dearing legacy; and embattled college chief Roger Ward left the Association of Colleges following an inquiry into allegations of "impropriety".

At long last the North report on Oxford University came out and called for an end to the "unhealthy mystique" surrounding college accounts.

A bad year for Italian universities opened with the arrest of an architectural professor at the University of Florence for passing students in exchange for luxury household goods. And the first real signs of the impact of the East Asian financial crisis came when Malaysia slashed its overseas student programme by four-fifths.

More philosophically Richard Dworkin weighed up the arguments for freedom of speech. "Free speech, if it is a universal right, also protects pornographers hawking pictures of naked women with their legs spread and bigots sporting swastikas or white hoods and selling hatreds," but he pointed out that although we are likely to condemn such activity, "if we do, the principle is inevitably weakened, not just in such cases, but generally".


The government published The Learning Age, its white-turned-green paper on lifelong learning, amid the first signs that mature students were being forced out of higher education by costs. UCAS figures showed a drop of 18 per cent in applications from those over 25.

The Dearing legacy reared its head again with the government's response - the introduction of tuition fees having already been announced. On most other issues, principally science and other funding matters, the government again deferred to the comprehensive spending review.

In Scotland Garrick had recommended that there should be two funding councils for further and higher education with a separate chairman but under a single organisation and with a single chief executive. The government agreed and set a date, January 1999, for establishing a Scottish Further Education Funding Council. But it rejected the idea that they should fund qualifications rather than institutions. Good news for Oxford and Cambridge - told that they could keep the college fee next year because there was not enough time left to scrap it.

South African universities announced a tough line on unpaid fees, leaving thousands of underprivileged students facing exclusion.


The Higher Education Funding Council for England funding allocations benefited a small band of top research universities. Overall the funding round made cuts of less than 1 per cent per student. No university or college would lose in cash terms, the council said, so long as it could get students to pay up under the new fee arrangements.

The Teaching and Higher Education Bill completed its voyage through the Lords, but not without sustaining a number of defeats, principally on the General Teaching Council, restoring grants for students from low-income families and equal treatment for students taking four-year degrees - the Scottish anomaly.

Early feedback from HEFCE's consultation on the RAE suggested that there would be another assessment exercise - but that it would be delayed by one year to 2001.

The budget saw the establishment of a Pounds 50 million venture capital fund to help universities commercialise their research. But universities feared the loss of millions of pounds through new arrangements for national insurance payments.

A ban on headscarves and similar Islamic dress became a major political issue in Turkey. And the Lunar Prospector, launched by the Americans in January, found water on the moon.


Andrew Pakes was elected by just 15 votes to become the new president of the National Union of Students. He vowed to carry on the fight against fees. HEFCE proposed that poor and disabled students could bring a cash bonus for the universities that recruit them next year.

Ireland was on the brink of peace. The Good Friday agreement made little mention of education, but the government gave the long-awaited go-ahead to a new campus at Springvale in west Belfast.

The first steps towards a research council were taken with the announcement of an Arts and Humanities Research Board, which controversially did not cover Scotland and Wales.


A University of Ulster student was killed just one week after the historic political breakthrough of the Good Friday agreement. Ciaran Heffron was shot dead in the early hours of a Saturday as he walked the few hundred yards home from a Crumlin village pub.

The Open University announced the creation of an "Open University of the United States" to offer US-accredited programmes to fit the American semester system. British Aerospace published a prospectus for its virtual university. More than 25 academics met the prime minister to define a political third way. The seminar was the result of collaboration between Downing Street and the policy network Nexus.

British universities scored best across Europe in a large-scale comparison of universities in 15 European countries by the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

Leeds University fine art students created a media frenzy around an elaborate deception. The students' claim that they used university money to go on holiday to Malaga as part of an experimental piece of performance art was widely ridiculed. In fact, the stunt was a staged simulation aimed at raising fundamental questions about truth and art.

Members of the Association of University Teachers voted by 58 per cent to 42 per cent to accept a pay offer, which meant a 2 per cent increase for six months and a further 1.8 per cent for the remaining six. But at the AUT's annual conference delegates said the executive should have advised members to reject the offer. Other unions also settled.

Southampton University said it would tell all freshers in the autumn to get vaccinated against meningitis before arriving at the university. Academics at Queen's University Belfast were outraged by plans to lose more than 100 lecturers in a Pounds 25 million restructuring plan. Vice-chancellor George Bain said the restructuring was necessary to take Queen's into the new millennium.

Australia's equivalent of Dearing, the West report, ran to 200 pages, cost Pounds 1 million, took 16 months to write and took the Howard government a few days to dismiss. Six Indonesian students, demonstrating for democratic reforms, died in clashes with riot police.

Sir Stephen Tumim, former chief inspector of prisons, questioned whether "prison works". "I have visited prisons in the Cayman Islands and Cyprus where the recidivism rate is below 5 per cent and yet in England and the US, among most groups more than 50 per cent of prisoners commit a crime within two years of discharge from prison. "The differences are far too great for us to accept that `prison works," he concluded.

Australian philosopher and animal rights activist Peter Singer urged a new manifesto on the left. "It is time the left embraced Darwin, forgot Utopia and accepted there are some things about human nature that cannot be changed." He went on to cause a stir by restating his view that doctors,with parental consent, are justified in administering a lethal injection to handicapped babies - rather than leaving them to die a slower and agonising death.


William Hague announced his new frontbench education and employment team. David Willetts succeeded Stephen Dorrell to head the team and Damian Green took over Mr Willetts's previous role as shadow spokesman on employment and higher education.

Bailiffs evicted 35 students from buildings at the University of East London, where they had been in occupation for more than two weeks protesting against Pounds 2.4 million worth of cuts and 80 staff redundancies.

The government announced that loans were to be made available to people aged 50 to 54 as part of its measures to widen participation in higher education.

Sir Stephen Tumim caused a row when he resigned as principal of St Edmund's Hall, Oxford amid calls for a Royal Commission to reform Oxbridge.

The Scottish anomaly was still causing trouble for the higher education bill. Peers voted to amend it to ensure equal fees treatment for all United Kingdom students. The Commons had overturned an original Lords amendment to the same effect.


The comprehensive spending review finally arrived. Higher education received Pounds 445 million extra over two years, 1998-2000. Efficiency gains were kept to 1 per cent, leading the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals to comment "so far so good". Further education got an extra Pounds 338 million over the two years. Science received a bumper Pounds 1.4 billion over three years, with Pounds 400 million coming from the Wellcome Trust. Scottish higher education got an extra Pounds 230 million and further education got an extra Pounds 214 million. But all sectors had to support more students - 35,000 in higher education in England and Wales for the next academic year and 420,000 in further education by 2002.

A five-year battle between further education lecturers and employers ended after both sides agreed to a proposed settlement on pay and conditions.

The American academic Alan Sokal followed up his spoof article of 1996, which had successfully deceived an American cultural studies journal, with a book, Intellectual Impostures. Our reviewer, however, was not impressed:

"The authors' skill at sniffing out bull**** about natural science turns out not to be transferable - they have no nose for what they are rolling in when it comes to philosophy."


Northern Ireland's education minister Tony Worthington was replaced by John McFall in a government reshuffle. In Scotland, education was split from the industry portfolio and Scottish Office minister Helen Liddell took over half of Brian Wilson's old brief. Mr Wilson's industry brief was taken by media tycoon Gus Macdonald.

Two young British academics won the equivalent of the Nobel prize in mathematics. Richard Borcherds and Tim Gowers, both at Cambridge University, were awarded the Fields medal at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Berlin. The 1998 A-level results showed the relentless rise in passes slowing. John Taylor, director of the Hewlett-Packard Laboratories in Bristol, was appointed director general of the research councils from January 1999.

Teacher training recruitment lurched towards another recruitment crisis, with the biggest drop for a decade predicted on Postgraduate Certificate in Education courses.

Concern about genetics and the use of robots mounted. Nobel laureate and professor of physics at Princeton University Philip W. Anderson wrote of New York professor Michio Kaku's future vision: "I am flabbergasted by the calm with which Kaku greets the idea of conscious robots - can they possibly remain under their creators' control?" But it was past events that exercised American professor Bob Brier, who thought that Tutankhamen could have been murdered by an adviser who coveted his wife and his throne.


Vice-chancellors held their annual meeting and were warned that they faced "very serious challenges" from global and corporate competitors, such as the Western Governors University in the United States.

A KPMG report, commissioned jointly by the funding councils, said that colleges are better than universities at teaching sub-degree higher education. However, it found the cost of teaching the courses in the two sectors roughly the same.

HEFCE announced that it had rejected Dearing's recommendation that universities should not be allowed to sub-contract courses to further education colleges.

US immigration restrictions hit job-seeking foreign academics.


The conference season. Education secretary David Blunkett promised more money in the autumn's funding announcements for years 2000-01 and 2001-02 and said that colleges and universities would easily surpass the target set at last year's conference of an extra 500, 000 students by 2002.

The Conservatives returned to one of their favourite themes - unless the expansion of higher education was properly funded it would lead to a fall in quality.

Two scholars with British connections were among the Nobel laureates announced. Amartya Sen of the University of Cambridge won the Nobel prize for his work on welfare economics. The British mathematician John Pople shared the Nobel prize in chemistry.

The new quality assurance blueprint was finally unveiled by the Quality Assurance Agency. Despite strong objections from universities that the plans would damage institutional autonomy and lead to a national curriculum for higher education, the final framework included the controversial requirements for minimum benchmark degree standards and for explicit statements of the intended outcomes of courses.

A University of Cardiff business school study found that students from state schools do better at the old universities than their independent counterparts. And two Warwick University researchers followed this up with the finding that graduates from state schools earn less than their privately-educated counterparts even when they are the same age and sex and have read the same subject at the same university and achieved the same degree.

President Bill Clinton once said that the book that had most influenced his life was the Meditations by 2nd-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. As his troubles multiplied these words returned to haunt him with the publication of a new book on the emperor. "If Bill Clinton ever read from the man who praised virtuous behaviour over political outcomes, he cannot have been concentrating too hard," said our reviewer. "Marcus Aurelius preached the irrationality of sexual passion. Bill Clinton practised it."

Writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, who fled Nigeria in 1997, planned his return after the death of the leader of Nigeria's military junta and asked how Africa could best move away from its bloody past. "What really would be preposterous or ethically inadmissable in imposing a general levy on South Africa's white population?" he asked.

Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, won the fight for his university's right to keep photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's book in the library. "Now I am not convinced that any material in this day and age can be regarded as obscene by virtue of its likelihood to deprave or corrupt. That concept belongs to a set of social values probably outdated even when the act was passed."


Chancellor Gordon Brown announced eight new institutes of enterprise in universities, designed to build stronger links between higher education and industry. David Gibson, principal of City College, Manchester, was appointed to the Pounds 100,000 plus post as the new chief executive of the Association of Colleges.

Mike Fitzgerald, vice-chancellor of Thames Valley University, resigned after a damning report from the Quality Assurance Agency. He had made widening participation his mission, and the agency said academic standards were under threat. Stan Mason, sacked in 1997 as principal of Glasgow Caledonian University, won his case for unfair dismissal.

About 20,000 part-time university lecturers on hourly rates won the right to fully paid leave after lecturers' union Natfhe and the Association of University Teachers hammered out a deal with the universities.

Agreement was finally reached after months of wrangling on the size of Europe's future research programme with a Fifth Framework budget of 14.96 billion euros (Pounds 10.5 billion).


Animal rights activists threatened to kill ten researchers if hunger striker Barry Horne died. In the event Mr Horne came off his hunger strike and the government said no deal had been made on his call for a Royal Commission.

Colleges were taken aback when Mr Blunkett used the CSR announcement for the three years 1999 to 2002 to tell the sector that it should seek to enrol an extra 700,000 students by 2001-02. This was a 200,000 increase on the target set by Tony Blair last year. Colleges were told that they would receive an extra Pounds 180 million for widening participation in 1999-2000 and a further Pounds 155 million in 2000-01. The following week Mr Blunkett announced an extra Pounds 776 million over the next two years for higher education, but much of it was to come from student fees. The government published its competitiveness white paper, with then secretary of state for trade and industry Peter Mandelson telling universities they must abandon their role as "ivory towers" to become "engines of economic growth".

Marina Warner mused on childhood - and pictures of it. "Pasted in a family album, naked children do not, and should not, look pornographic. But when a family album is published, do the same images change meaning?" The "Knowing child", no longer the embodiment of Romantic innocence, had arrived.

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