The week in higher education - 3 July 2014

July 3, 2014
  • “Wonga tactics” does not sound like something the Student Loans Company would want to be associated with. But that is how one campaigner – quoted in the Daily Mail – described methods used by the state lender to pursue graduates falling behind on repayments. The news website BuzzFeed highlighted on June how graduates were being sent letters from what appeared to be an independent debt collection agency called Smith Lawson & Company. A clue to its origin was in the company’s initials, but it was made “clear” in some small print at the bottom that Smith Lawson was a trading name of the SLC. The tactic was branded controversial as payday loan firm Wonga has just been asked to pay £2.6 million in compensation for sending customers letters from fictitious debt recovery firms. The SLC – which said that it used the “secondary brand” to save paying fees to a conventional debt collection agency – has now suspended its use of the letters.
  • Smith Lawson & Company would have its work cut out when it comes to collecting debt from European Union students outside the UK, according to an article in The Daily Telegraph on 24 June. It reports that the latest figures show a threefold rise in the amount of debt arrears accumulated by students from EU member states over the past two years, with £38.2 million now overdue. About 92,000 EU students have taken out UK student loans, with £686.3 million drawn out in the past 12 months, the paper said. Acknowledging that concerns have been raised about the number of EU students accessing loans for “dubious” courses at private colleges, the report noted that the coalition had “promised to tackle the practice”. So we can breathe a sigh a relief on that one, then.
  • The campaign to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom has been compared to a “bunch of arrogant students who get drunk at lunchtime” by the country’s former first minister. Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale said that both sides of the debate had failed voters by using “complacent and negative tactics”, but the Labour peer recalled judging a university debate on independence when describing the approach of the Better Together campaign, The Independent reported on June. “Those in favour of Scotland’s membership…read all the evidence and papers…and became so convinced of the case that they went to the pub at lunchtime, became complacent and, despite having all the arguments, lost the debate comprehensively,” he said. Someone should tell Better Together that the bell just rang for last orders.
  • Two separate reports last week focused on that perennial problem – too few poor children entering “top” universities. First the Department for Education released figures showing that only 50 pupils on free school meals got into Oxbridge in 2011 – fewer than both Eton College (60) and Westminster School (65) sent that year, the Daily Mail reported on June. Then the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission – led by former Labour Cabinet minister Alan Milburn – identified a missing 2,000 poor state pupils who should be making it to “elite” universities. If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve heard much of it before. The DfE set out similar damning figures in March, while the Sutton Trust has for years been banging on about a “missing 3,000” state pupils not getting into top universities. Perhaps more troubling is how the Milburn commission defined a “high status” university – one that is in the Russell Group or has a higher average score than the worst-performing Russell Group member in the 2001 research assessment exercise. Yes, you read that right – the 2001 RAE.
  • The University of Essex has announced a scholarship in memory of Nahid Almanea, a 31-year-old Saudi student who died after being stabbed 16 times as she walked along a quiet footpath in Colchester last month. It is expected that the scholarship, announced on 30 June and developed in discussion with her family and friends, will fund an international student who wants to work in science education. Ms Almanea had been studying the Essex English Language Programme at the university’s International Academy since January. She was due to complete her course in August before going on to study for a life sciences PhD.
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