The week in higher education - 22 January 2015

January 22, 2015
  • The Sunday Times quoted Liam Byrne, Labour’s shadow universities, science and skills minister, as saying that “the right long-term shift is to a graduate tax” on 18 January. But the newspaper said that Labour was still considering its short-term option of lowering tuition fees to £6,000, which is what the party declared in 2011 it would do if it were in power at that time. It seems that Labour is in exactly the same position that it was when Mr Byrne said exactly the same to Times Higher Education in December 2013. On 16 January, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, told students at Sheffield Hallam University that “we…want to do more for students heading to university, who leave at the end burdened down with debt. By the time of our manifesto, having listened to you, we will have more to say on higher education.” The depth of Labour’s internal agonies over the £6,000 policy is matched only by the depth of boredom experienced by those waiting for an announcement.
  • University leaders are used to hearing moans about their remuneration, but one may have been surprised by the latest attack on “academic fat cats”. On 18 January, Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, was pilloried in a Wales Online story for claiming a £6 taxi fare on expenses last year. Two months after that, the story added, he claimed a whopping £7 for another fare. The claims took place “amid a backdrop of spiralling tuition fees and swingeing staff cuts”, the site observes. Professor Riordan should fund such items out of his own pocket given his £238,000-?a-year salary, suggested a TaxPayers’ Alliance spokesman, who added that such claims set “the wrong example for the future of our country”. Despite the best efforts of the news website, however, it seems unlikely that Professor Riordan’s cab fares will elicit duckhouse-levels of public anger.
  • A Japanese man is suing a women-only university after his application to study there was turned down, the Bangkok Post reported on 19 January. The man in his twenties claims that the decision by Fukuoka Women’s University, in southwestern Japan, to reject his application to study nutrition is unconstitutional and amounts to gender discrimination, according to court papers. As Fukuoka is the only public university in the region to offer the course, the man would have to study at a private college to achieve his goal of becoming a dietitian, his lawyer says. Those campaigning for more opportunities for women in Japan’s notoriously male-dominated universities will no doubt note the bleak irony in the upcoming legal action.
  • One in five students now graduates with a first-class degree, figures show. Nearly 80,000 graduates picked up top marks last summer – four times as many as 15 years ago and 10,000 more than the number awarded the previous year, the Daily Mail reported on 16 January. Although howls of “degree inflation” are common at this time of year, the latest figures from Higher Education Statistics Agency do point to an alarming trend. Some 70 per cent of graduates now gain at least a 2:1, up from 64 per cent three years earlier, Hesa data show. If the year-on-year improvements continue at that pace, 100 per cent of students will gain at least an “Attila” by the end of next decade, with the terms “Desmond” and “Douglas” dropping out of common parlance, too.
  • Scientists at the University of Birmingham have cracked one of the big questions of the modern age: how to load a dishwasher correctly. The best way to tackle the problem is to load plates in a circular pattern around the cutlery basket, aligning them to the water jets emanating from the rotating arms, the Daily Mail reported on 16 January. Although dishwater racks are typically arranged in straight lines – making the ideal formation impracticable – plates would be cleaner if hard-to-shift carbohydrate stains, such as potato, could be placed in line with the jets, according to research published in the Chemical Engineering Journal. The research, which was undertaken with the help of manufacturers Whirlpool and Procter & Gamble, could lead to more efficient and effective dishwashers, say academics. Perhaps a new dishwasher powder called Impact will also be on the market soon.
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