The week in higher education - 28 November 2013

November 28, 2013
  • His department’s sums might be in a muddle, but it seems David Willetts has committed a more unforgivable sin: creating a generation of teetotal, work-obsessed student bores. Assessing the impact of £9,000 tuition fees, the Financial Times reported that students “drink less and study more”, with some student bars “completely empty most nights”. “We might be creating a generation of prematurely middle-aged people,” said one Oxbridge don. Cash-strapped students were scouring internet sites for cheaper gas and insurance deals instead of picking up offers for free drinks, and were equally keen on value for money from their courses, the paper reported on 21 November. But as the newly sober sector contemplates unpalatable cuts in the near future, a few stiff drinks might be in order for all.
  • Academics have backed calls by University of Manchester students to reform economics classes that focus on neoliberal theories. In a letter to The Guardian on 22 November, several university economists say that students are right to complain that their courses do little to explain why the financial crash occurred and are too focused on training them for City jobs. Advocating a “more pluralist and relevant curriculum” that “offers greater power to explain real-world events”, the Association for Heterodox Economics’ letter follows a similar one by several post-Keynesian economists published by the newspaper on 19 November. The earlier letter bemoans an “intellectual monoculture” reinforced by a research funding system that rewards publications in journals “heavily biased in favour of orthodoxy”.
  • Several columnists were aghast at guidance issued on 22 November suggesting that universities might have to allow debates led by religious speakers to have segregation by gender – as long as rooms are split “left and right, rather than front and back”. On 26 November, The Daily Telegraph’s Allison Pearson tweeted her astonishment at the advice from Universities UK on external speakers, saying “we must fight this”. On the same day, The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee branded the advice, designed to ensure that freedom of expression is not “curtailed unlawfully”, as “excruciating nonsense” that pandered to the “sexist eccentricities of some religions”.
  • As Chancellor George Osborne cracked down on payday lenders, the private loan sector received a shot in the arm from the sale of student loans taken out in the 1990s. Loans worth £890 million were sold to “experts in consumer debt” Erudio Student Loans for £160 million, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announced on 25 November. Of the 300,000 still to repay loans from more than 15 years ago, about half are earning below the repayment threshold, but the 40 per cent not paying in line with their terms can expect more attention. One of the firms behind Erudio – Arrow Global – is part of a debt collection industry renowned for avidly pursuing potential debtors with repayment demands, The Independent reported on 26 November. NUS president Toni Pearce said the sale meant that the public was “subsidising a private company making a profit from public debt, which is incredibly problematic”.
  • About 40 students have defied a court ruling ordering the end of their occupation of the University of Birmingham’s senate chamber, The Guardian reported on 26 November. Student group Defend Education occupied Birmingham’s administrative hub on 20 November, calling for greater university democracy and expressing anger about vice-chancellor David Eastwood’s “unacceptable” £409,000 pay package, the paper reported. Birmingham was granted a possession order on 25 November and an injunction to stop further unauthorised sit-ins, but the group has voted to remain on site and was still there as Times Higher Education went to press. Union vice-president Hattie Craig and former vice-president Simon Furse were named in the writ and could face imprisonment if they take part in similar protests in the next year. Birmingham said it respected the rights of students “to protest peacefully and within the law”, but the protest “is diverting…resources and potentially diminishing the safety of our 28,000 other students”.

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