The week in higher education - 17 October 2013

October 17, 2013
  • A creepy clown whose eerie appearances have spooked a town has been unmasked as a University of Northampton student, the Sunday People revealed on 13 October. Dressed as the homicidal clown Pennywise from the film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel It, 22-year-old Alex Powell would stand motionless clutching balloons in Northampton town centre, unnerving many passers-by. More than 180,000 people have liked pictures of him on Facebook, but others suffering coulrophobia – the abnormal fear of clowns – begged the film-maker to stop, the paper says. However, it seems that Mr Powell has no intention of ending his mysterious appearances despite a spot of bother from locals. “It was just a bit of fun at first and a lot of people seem to enjoy it, but it gets a bit hard sometimes with the death threats,” he said.
  • Growing numbers of students are popping “cognitive enhancing drugs” to boost their grades and job prospects, the Daily Mail reported on 10 October. The use of prescription-only pills such as Modafinil is “sweeping campuses”, with many students “addicted to [the] brain Viagra” that allows them to study for 12 hours without looking up from their books, the paper said. One in four students at the University of Oxford had taken “smart pills”, while one in 10 at the University of Cambridge had experimented, according to some surveys, the Mail said. Although the drugs can have known side-effects, Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge, was concerned that little was known about their long-term effects. “Not enough research has been done to see what effects these have on fit and healthy people,” she told the paper.
  • The UK’s student finance set-up is “a fragile system that is going to break” because most graduates will struggle to repay their loans, the Observer’s Will Hutton argued on 13 October. Mr Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford, and chair of the Independent Commission on Fees, said those emerging from England’s universities would be more debt-laden than US graduates because of a “unique double whammy” of “high interest rates and sky-high debt” added to low starting salaries. Instead of “loading the entire burden for university financing on to the shoulders of the innocent young” – an act of “arrant selfishness” by older generations – there should be a “mixed economy of student finance”, with moderate fees contributing to funds received from general taxation, he argued.
  • Future students petrified by the thought of even higher tuition fees in England can rest easy – deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has promised not to raise them to £16,000, the Huffington Post website reported on 14 October. The Liberal Democrat leader’s pledge followed a speech by Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, that called for fees, currently limited to £9,000 a year, to better reflect the full annual cost – £16,000 – of educating his undergraduates. “Don’t worry, we’re not going to raise tuition fees to £16,000,” insisted Mr Clegg, in a line that would be more appropriate for the Alanis Morissette song Ironic than “rain on your wedding day”. So how can Mr Clegg convince students that his latest vow on fees is more credible than his last? A cast-iron written pledge signed by him and all his MPs should do the trick.
  • Plans by three unions to call a national strike over this year’s 1 per cent pay offer from universities were being finalised at the time Times Higher Education went to press, with a date of 31 October looking most likely for action. It comes after separate ballots by the University and College Union, Unite and Unison returned a majority in favour of a strike. It is thought that a national walkout would represent the first time the three unions have taken such joint action over pay. Union leaders are demanding a better offer from universities, claiming that four years of below-inflation pay rises have reduced salaries by 13 per cent in real terms. The Universities and Colleges Employers Association said last week that its 1 per cent offer – including joint work on the gender pay gap, casual contracts and flexible working arrangements – “remains on the table”.

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