News in brief

March 10, 2011

Science select committee

Call an expert, and make it quick

The government waits too long to ask for scientific advice in emergencies, says a report by the Commons Science and Technology Committee. The report, released last week, says while science is often used effectively in response to threats such as flu epidemics, serious concerns remain. It notes the detachment of the government's chief scientific adviser from the National Risk Assessment used by the Cabinet Office, proposes an independent scientific advisory committee on risk assessment, and calls for the Government Office for Science to be located in the Cabinet Office.

Vocational qualifications

Some courses useless, says Wolf

Young people are being "deceived" into taking vocational courses that are of no value within education or the labour market because performance tables encourage schools to offer inadequate qualifications, a major review of vocational education has found. While BTEC national diplomas are valuable in the labour market and an acknowledged route into higher education, many low-level vocational qualifications obtained outside apprenticeship bring no apparent gains, says the government-commissioned Wolf Report. Funding incentives and government targets have conspired to prevent many students improving maths and English skills, even though those remain the most useful and valuable vocational skills on offer, says the report by Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London.

Quality Assurance Agency

A field guide to doctorates

The Quality Assurance Agency is inviting comments on a draft version of a document defining the characteristics of UK doctoral study. The document, Doctoral Degree Characteristics, aims to describe the range of doctoral degrees and to stress the need for equivalence, with all being rooted in original research. The agency hopes those who set and assess degree standards will use the document in the same way as they use its earlier publication, Master's Degree Characteristics. Input is also invited on a "rough guide to the UK doctorate", aimed at ensuring PhD candidates know what to expect.

Office of the Independent Adjudicator

Private college joins scheme

A private higher education provider has become the first of its kind to submit to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator complaints process. The ifs School of Finance, which is registered as a charity, is the first private provider with taught degree-awarding powers to join the scheme. The OIA adjudicates in student complaints after they have gone through universities' internal complaints processes. OIA head Robert Behrens called the ifs move "an early sign of a significant trend amongst private sector providers".

At-risk institutions

Auditor forecasts heavy weather

Universities in financial difficulty are staying at higher risk for longer, and problems are likely to worsen under the new funding regime, the National Audit Office has warned. In a report published last week, Regulating Financial Sustainability in Higher Education, the NAO says the seven institutions deemed "at higher risk" by the Higher Education Funding Council for England last year had spent an average of 4.3 years in the category, up from 2.7 years in 2006. One, Thames Valley University, has been in the category for 12 years, it says, and cases with "areas of concern" rose from 10 in 2007 to 43 last year. The NAO said funding to support such universities could become "stretched" in the new funding environment.


Sir Howard Davies' resignation as director of the London School of Economics over its links with Libya was hailed as an honourable decision by readers online. One writes: "Howard Davies is an honourable man and has behaved correctly. This will open a much-needed wider debate on academic freedom, the importance of critical scholarship and policy issues on funding."


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