The week in higher education - 15 January 2015

January 15, 2015
  • Vice-chancellors are sometimes accused of being absent from public debates, so it may have surprised some when three of them popped up on Radio 4 in one morning. First up on the Today programme on 9 January was the University of Huddersfield’s vice-chancellor Bob Cryan, who spoke up for the institution’s patron Prince Andrew. The prince had been criticised over his royal role in the wake of claims – “emphatically denied” by Buckingham Palace – made in US court papers that he had sex with a girl when she was underage. Professor Cryan branded the allegations “ridiculous”. Half an hour later the University of Reading’s vice-chancellor Sir David Bell was on the show to call for an independent body to set strategy for schools, while the University of Manchester’s president and vice-chancellor Dame Nancy Rothwell was the castaway on Desert Island Discs. Although the three of them barely mentioned higher education policy, maybe 2015 will be the year that university leaders stick their heads above the parapet.
  • Former permanent secretary in the Department for Education Sir David Bell was not finished with his old employer after taking part in Today. In a speech to the Association of Science Education the same day, he said that university education departments were being killed off because they are wrongly viewed by ministers as “Marxist hotbeds”. He said that the government’s teacher training policy was deliberately “squeezing good, proven providers out of the sector” because of its “false ideological fixation”. Sir David urged ministers not to “cut their noses off to spite their own faces” when it came to high-performing teacher training departments, which former Red-baiting education secretary Michael Gove described as home to his enemy, “the Blob”. “Here at Reading, I’m still searching to find my first Marxist in the Institute of Education,” Sir David added.
  • The long-lost space probe Beagle 2 has been found, US scientists believe. The British spacecraft, which crash-landed on Mars on Christmas Day in 2003, has been spotted close to the mission’s intended landing site by a Nasa ship, the Daily Mail reported on 13 January. Experts have long believed that Beagle 2 hit the ground too hard because of Mars’ ultra-thin atmosphere, but the mystery of its fate now appears to have been resolved. The discovery will likely have little scientific value, but it seems that the spacecraft – which came to symbolise plucky British endeavour and made a household name of late academic Colin Pillinger – can still capture the country’s imagination.
  • Student accommodation has, for some universities and private companies, been a bit of a money-spinner. Raise some major capital, build some basic flats and watch the pounds roll in thanks to an (almost) limitless supply of students. But as an article in The Guardian highlighted on 10 January, there may be an opportunity for students to jump on the landlord gravy train. The newspaper carried an interview with an Anglia Ruskin University student who has taken out a “Buy for Uni” mortgage, where parents can use the equity on their own home to guarantee a 100 per cent loan for their offspring, allowing them to purchase a house. Although the maximum 100 per cent loan offered by the Bath Building Society deal is £300,000, it can allow students to benefit from rising house prices while also raking in rent from housemates. So how long before academics are renting their own home from student property magnates?
  • It seems unlikely that any higher education scandal in 2015 will match the one making headlines in Germany. Summarised by The Times on 8 January as “Judge caught with prostitute and gun admits selling exam answers”, the tale features a Lower Saxony judge known only as “Jörg L”. According to the newspaper, he went on the run last year after a series of mediocre students turned in outstanding performances while he was head of a regional examination audit office. He was later arrested in a hotel room in Milan in the company of a -year-old Romanian prostitute, €30,000 (£23,300) in cash, a handgun and 43 rounds of ammunition. In an hour-long statement to a court in Lüneburg, Jörg L confessed to selling the exam answers to 14 students and handing them to another woman to whom he was attracted.
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