News in brief

February 3, 2011

Parliamentary oversight

MPs probe peer review and cuts

The Commons Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry into peer review. It is inviting written evidence on the "operation and effectiveness of the peer-review process used to examine and validate scientific results and papers prior to publication" before 10 March. Meanwhile, an inquiry into astronomy and particle physics will examine the consequences of the reduced capital budget awarded to the Science and Technology Facilities Council by the Comprehensive Spending Review. It will also address whether the STFC "has sufficiently engaged with its research community" in setting its strategic direction.

Student loans

Rate of increase, no cap in sight

Legislation enabling the coalition government to apply higher interest rates to student loans allows ministers "free rein" to raise charges in the future, a university group has warned. The changes - detailed in last week's Education Bill - allow the government to implement its plan of charging interest rates of up to 3 per cent above inflation on loans taken out after 2012-13. It plans to levy this maximum charge while students are still studying and on graduates earning more than £41,000 a year. Those earning less will see the real interest rate taper off to zero, according to the plans announced last year. However, the legislation does not specify any cap on the rate other than it should be "no higher than those prevailing on the market". Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group, said the plans "give the secretary of state free rein to set uncapped and commercial rates of interest on student loans". A government spokesman said parliamentary oversight would remain for any changes.


Highlands fling, Edinburgh merger

The University of the Highlands and Islands was this week awarded full university status after more than a decade of planning. The institution is a partnership of numerous colleges and research centres across the Scottish Highlands and islands, and is the only higher education provider in the region. It achieved taught degree-awarding powers in 2008. Meanwhile, the Scottish Funding Council has awarded £13.8 million in new investment to the University of Edinburgh and the Edinburgh College of Art after the Holyrood government approved a merger between the institutions. Mike Russell, the Scottish education secretary, said he had approved the merger because the financial position of the art college was unsustainable, but did so "with regret as well as anticipation". "This position should not have been allowed to develop," he added.


Engineering leadership

The Royal Academy of Engineering has nominated Sir John Parker, chairman of the National Grid, as its next president. The academy's council has also nominated Sir William Wakeham, emeritus professor and former vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, as senior vice-president. Both men will begin their three-year terms in July, following the ratification of their appointments at the 35-year-old academy's annual general meeting. Sir John, who is also chairman of mining company Anglo American, will take over from Lord Browne of Madingley, the former BP chief executive and author of the Browne Review.


The news that students have been left in limbo by the collapse of the private London College of Traditional Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, despite 200 of them studying for degrees validated by the University of Portsmouth, provoked debate.

A reader writes: "Welcome to the beginning of privatised higher education. A market is not truly free unless firms are able to fail. Students, and those who advise them, need to take this risk of failure into account when making their decisions...Also, if 'efficient' private providers cannot survive on fees of £6,500, what will universities need to charge?"


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