The week in higher education - 10 July 2014

July 10, 2014
  • One of higher education’s most colourful leading figures has retired from his role. Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, which was until recently the UK’s only private university, will step down with almost immediate effect, it was announced on 4 July. An unapologetic supporter of Margaret Thatcher and her politics, Professor Kealey was also a champion of academic freedom and argued that the UK could benefit from having an Ivy League-style elite of private universities. Described in a Guardian profile as possibly “the most reactionary man in Britain”, Professor Kealey was also keen to debate higher education policy with his left-wing critics – such as when he called on “whingeing” scholars to embrace the trebling of tuition fees. His swift exit from Buckingham on the last day of term is in contrast to the protracted departures (some lasting years) of other less controversial university leaders.
  • Has Channel 4 documentary The Secret Life of Students been a good advert for the University of Leicester? It is certainly one of the year’s most discussed programmes, with thousands of young people tweeting their views on the antics of 12 freshers filmed during the first months of student life. But the mix of one-night stands, sexually transmitted diseases and drinking competitions didn’t appeal to everyone, the Leicester Mercury reported on 4 July. “Cheers…for making Leicester Uni look like the home of complete and utter morons,” tweeted one viewer. But many party-loving young people loved the show, which was branded “gross, painful and utterly brilliant” by one TV critic. Leicester registrar and secretary Dave Hall defended it. “There were obviously moments that might make you wince”, he said, but he commended the “self-reflective” students who “made the choice to act responsibly” once presented with the consequences of their actions.
  • While Channel 4 viewers were enjoying images of carousing undergraduates, universities and science minister David Willetts painted a different picture of today’s students. In an interview with the Daily Mail on 7 July, Mr Willetts claimed that the days of large numbers of students “dossing around” reading Karl Marx were over, saying they are more likely to work longer hours, miss fewer lectures and complain about essays not being marked promptly, basing many of his observations on data collected by the Higher Education Policy Institute. “My experience now going to meet students is that they are not, by and large, plotting Marxist revolution in Latin America,” he added. “They are instead frustrated that their seminars are too crowded, [or that] it takes too long to get an academic to respond to their…work.” Whether that is indeed a cause for celebration or a worrying sign of the times may be open to interpretation.
  • First it was Romanians and Bulgarians said to be disappearing with student loan cash, but another group may be even less likely to repay their fee money, the Daily Mail reported on 7 July. The baby boomer generation is borrowing £67 million a year in student loans, despite most over-fifties knowing that they may never repay the money, the paper states. Just over 5,000 over-fifties claimed loans to cover tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year in 2013-14, and roughly the same number got maintenance loans worth up to £7,751 a year, it added. With average retirement income at about £11,000 (way below the £21,000 a year threshold at which repayments begin), many may never pay back a penny, the Mail suggests.
  • Two universities have stripped Rolf Harris of honorary degrees, the Liverpool Echo reported on 4 July. Liverpool Hope University withdrew the doctorate of letters awarded in 2010 on the day Harris was jailed for sex crimes. The decision came days after the University of East London revoked an honorary degree bestowed on the star in 2007 for his services to arts and culture. But The Independent’s Janet Street-Porter urged institutions not to airbrush the “terrible artist [and] creepy entertainer” from their histories, saying that society should study why he was so lavishly rewarded in the first place. “I want [his] honours to stand as a condemnation of the whole rotten system of dishing out tributes to those who don’t deserve it,” she wrote.
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