The week in higher education - 26 February 2015

February 26, 2015
  • The Labour Party appeared close to ending the long-running saga over its fees and funding policy as Times Higher Education went to press. By releasing a story about £2 billion set aside by the government “to cover potential write-downs in the value of existing student loans”, reported by the Financial Times on 23 February, Labour seemed to be clearing the ground for an announcement at the end of the week on whether or not it will opt for a £6,000 tuition fees policy. Leading the fight against £6,000 fees has been Lord Mandelson, the former Labour business secretary, who appeared at a Universities UK conference on 20 February and told reporters that an election pledge to hold a review of higher education would be better than opting for a fee cut. “I would hope that…whatever conclusions the Labour Party reaches, if they want to change the current approach they leave the door slightly ajar,” he said. On 21 February, The Times reported that Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, “is considering cutting some of the tax breaks handed to those saving for a pension as he tries to find the £2 billion needed each year to reduce [tuition] fees”. Measures being considered, the newspaper said, included lowering the £40,000 annual tax-free allowance that savers can put towards a pension, or cutting the £1.25 million lifetime allowance. Such a move would likely affect many vice-chancellors. Given that the UUK board angered Labour by publicly attacking the £6,000 fee concept, this side-effect might encourage the party to pursue the revenue-raising idea. Labour was incensed that the UUK board published its letter in The Times – which the party believes is hostile towards it – rather than a friendlier paper such as The Observer and that it had not tipped off Liam Byrne, the shadow universities, science and skills minister, to warn him that the letter would appear. So UUK should not expect any favours from the announcement.
  •  The University of Bolton loaned almost £1 million to its vice-chancellor to help him buy “a luxurious Edwardian house”, the Daily Mail reported on 23 February. George Holmes borrowed £960,000 to buy the detached four-bedroom house so that he could be closer to Bolton, after having undertaken a 100-mile round trip each day from his home in Yorkshire for the past eight years, the paper said. The two-year bridging loan, which will be paid off when his home in Wakefield is sold, “has helped to secure the continued services of an excellent vice-chancellor”, the university said. It follows a payment of £47,200 made two years ago to incentivise Professor Holmes to remain in his £199,000-a-year post, the Mail said.
  •  Poking fun at the University of Leicester for banging on about its discovery of Richard III is now almost as wearisome as the university’s barrage of publicity itself. But news that an escort agency has jumped on the bandwagon to generate business takes things to a new level. “Midland Belles is offering people the chance to visit the reinterment of the former Plantagenet monarch, at Leicester Cathedral, on March 26, with one of its ‘educated and beautiful’ escorts,” the Leicester Mercury reported on 17 February. “The website shows a selection of 10 scantily-clad ladies, which customers can book for the day (and night) and take to any of the events organised by Leicester Cathedral during the week of March 23.” Knowledge transfer, impact, benefits for local business: it ticks so many of the boxes required of universities these days. However, this may be the first occasion when the University of Leicester keeps quiet about a Richard III story.
  •  Two Thai students have been jailed for staging a satirical play aimed at their country’s monarchy, The Guardian reported on 23 February. Patiwat Saraiyaem, 23, and Porntip Mankong, 26, will serve two and a half years each for insulting the royal family after The Wolf Bride, a satire set in a fictional kingdom, was performed at Bangkok’s Thammasat University in October 2013. The pair were sentenced after admitting lese-majesty, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison. It is part of a wider crackdown on perceived slurs on Thailand’s 87-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is seen as a demigod by many of his subjects, since a military junta took power in May.
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