The week in higher education - 20 June 2013

June 20, 2013
  • A secret report about the potential sale of the student loan book has finally been made public despite inept efforts to keep it under wraps, The Guardian reported on 14 June. Submitted to the government in November 2011, the “Project Hero” report by Rothschild investment bank suggested that interest rates could be raised on student loans taken out over the past 15 years to make their sale more attractive to buyers, the paper reports. Such a hike would allow the sale of about £40 billion of pre-2012 student loans – much bigger than any other state assets likely to be sold, the report said. The document angered Labour and the National Union of Students, although Vince Cable, the business secretary, said the proposal had been “comprehensively dismissed” two years ago and would not be taken forward. Details of the report would have remained a mystery if Whitehall bureaucrats had been more heavy-handed in their redaction. About 90 per cent of the text was blacked out when it was released to a website after a Freedom of Information Act request, but the shading left most words legible.
  • A student solved his own postgraduate funding crisis by living on a small boat during his studies, the Daily Mail reported on 17 June. Unable to afford rent costs while doing an MA in physical geography at Aberystwyth University, Joe Pearce, 23, bought a 23ft sailboat for £800, the paper said. Mr Pearce reckons he has saved more than £5,600 by living on the vessel over the past 14 months. “It was so much fun living on the boat – I saved a lot of money and I’ve still got it and use it to go fishing,” said Mr Pearce, who admitted that living conditions were very cramped.
  • Fewer students from poor families are entering Russell Group universities than did a decade ago, a study by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission says. The report, published on 17 June, reveals that there were 126 fewer students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds at Russell Group institutions in 2011-12 than there were in 2002-03. However, the number of state school pupils entering one of the 24 research-intensive universities in the group rose by 1,464 over the same period, although there was a matching increase in the number of private school students – meaning that the institutions were now more socially exclusive, not less. Alan Milburn, the former Labour Cabinet minister who chairs the commission, said the group should set itself more ambitious targets. See this week’s leader
  • Art critic Brian Sewell has hit out at the “stuntmen” scholars dominating BBC history shows. In the Daily Mail on 17 June, he expressed particular irritation with Iain Stewart, professor of geosciences communication at Plymouth University and frontman of the BBC Two series Rise of the Continents. Mr Sewell was not wooed by the “big, brave and brawny” Professor Stewart, nor by his white-water rafting, his helicopter rides or his dive “fully clothed into the Zambezi, six feet from the very edge of the terrifying Victoria Falls”. “We have been promised the spectacle of him riding a crocodile bareback in a future episode,” he added dismissively. Professor Stewart, the BBC’s answer to Indiana Jones, is the latest example of the broadcaster’s lowbrow approach to history shows, in which “time is lost in constantly thrusting the presenter to the fore, often obliterating the very subject of the programme”, Mr Sewell said. At least Professor Stewart has one virtue: he is not “Fiona ‘bloody’ Bruce”, the newsreader whose hour-long show on Leonardo da Vinci marked a new intellectual low for Mr Sewell.
  • New York University president John Sexton received a $1 million loan to buy a luxury holiday home, the New York Times reported on 17 June. On top of his $1.5 million salary, a pension worth $800,000 a year, free housing and a “length of service” bonus to come in 2015, Dr Sexton received an NYU foundation loan to help him purchase his Fire Island beach house, the paper said. Dr Sexton declined to comment on the revelation, but even high-pay apologists struggled to defend the perk. “That is entertaining, actually. I don’t mind paying someone a robust salary, but I think you have to be able to pass a red-face test,” said Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, former president of George Washington University.

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