News in brief

August 30, 2012

Scotland

Salmond recipe for support

A package of extra financial support for Scottish students has been unveiled by the Holyrood government. As part of the measures, students with a family income of under £17,000 a year will get annual minimum support of £7,250 through a combination of bursaries and loans; all students regardless of income will be eligible for loans of £4,500 a year; and part-time students with a personal income of under £25,000 will be exempt from tuition fees. The package has been welcomed by the National Union of Students and the University and College Union. Scottish students studying full-time in their home country do not pay fees, but could be charged up to £9,000 if they study in the UK outside Scotland.

Fees reform

For Willetts' eyes only

England's funding council will deliver a confidential report to the government analysing the impact of the new tuition fees and funding system on students and institutions. The Higher Education Funding Council for England will hand over the report in December, but will share it "on a confidential basis and...not make it publicly available". Details of the plans are contained in papers from Hefce's July board meeting, published this month. "The primary focus of the report will be to respond to [the coalition's] request in our grant letter, providing a snapshot of the key emerging characteristics of the 'new system' through our view of early indications of...behaviour (by students and institutions)," Hefce writes. It will publish a publicly available follow-up report in March.

Open courseware

It's going to be a bumpy shift

Free online university courses are causing a "tectonic shift" in the evolution of higher education and will challenge "centuries-old pedagogical methods", according to an Observatory on Borderless Higher Education report. MOOCs and Disruptive Innovation: The Challenge to HE Business Models describes three start-up platforms via which institutions share course materials: Coursera, edX and Udacity. "MOOC" stands for "massive open online course"; such courses are offered to members of the public free of charge, although some platforms charge fees for certificates confirming that courses have been completed. "All industries have to cope with the disruption of the unfolding digital revolution and education is no exception," the paper's preface says. "Institutions need to work out responses in order to retain a competitive edge - or even relevance."

Research costs

Sharp eyes on million-dollar guys

Grant applications from researchers who receive more than $1 million (£630,000) a year in direct costs from the US' National Institutes of Health will be subject to additional scrutiny in a bid to help the funder "effectively manage resources". The NIH initially intended the additional scrutiny to apply to principal investigators receiving more than $1.5 million in total costs, but a pilot run earlier this year has convinced it to lower the threshold. From September, the NIH's advisory councils will be asked to check that applications from people above the threshold "afford a unique opportunity to advance research which is both highly promising and distinct from the other funded projects from the [principal investigator]". The NIH pledged that its funding decisions would "recognise that some types of research require higher levels of support than others".

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Last week's story on English-language standards being set below the levels recommended for degrees prompted debate. "For my money this is a big problem, at least in terms of robustness of admissions procedures and the satisfaction of those deserving students who have to put up with others who patently struggle with the language demands," wrote one reader. "It is certainly true that most...complete their courses. However, the 'wagon wheel' of students that I work with shows abysmal achievement in terms of final classification when compared with home students."

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