The week in higher education

January 10, 2008

Students come in for a hard time in the press this week. On 2 January, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph, Geoffrey Sampson of the University of Sussex, railed that the UK higher education system had become an expensive white elephant. The reason, he wrote, was that academics are now "required to give students a ritualised programme of learning to reproduce a fixed range of facts". Professor Sampson was responding to comments made by Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, that employers now prefer migrants to British graduates because the former had better employability skills.

- The Guardian, on 3 January, highlighted the phenomenon of "helicopter parents" - those who "hover" over their student offspring, taking a role in all aspects of their higher education. Paul Redmond, head of careers at the University of Liverpool, said that some parents were now even negotiating graduates' starting salaries.

- Still on the theme of what - and how - students should learn, several newspapers reported on 4 January that the next cohort of A-level media studies students would be able to use video podcasts as coursework. But only the Daily Mail found space for comments from the Queen's English Society, which said that "the more pupils are allowed to get away with not writing in proper, well-constructed English, the worse it will be for them".

- Students' A-level choices were also setting the news agenda on 6 January. The Sunday Times reported on its front page: "Top universities are drawing up blacklists of 'soft' A-level subjects that will bar applicants from winning places on their degree courses." The following day, the Russell Group issued a "clarification statement" stressing "that Russell Group universities emphasise the combination of A levels taken for a particular course, rather than individual A-level choices". Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, pointed out that no institution "bars" any A-level subject.

- If graduates find themselves struggling to earn enough to repay their student debt, there was more bad news. On 6 January, The Independent on Sunday reported that graduates who default on loans will for the first time have their details passed to credit-checking agencies, making it harder for them to get a mortgage.

- The Daily Mail reported on its front page on 7 January - under the headline "Bogus students can't be deported" - that "immigration officers have been ordered to stop deporting foreign students who overstay their visas". The newspaper said that the "secret edict makes a mockery of government claims to be running a robust immigration system".

- In The Times on 7 January came embarrassment for Mary Chapman, chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute. She had to hand back an honorary doctorate awarded by the Irish International University after it was pointed out that the institution was neither Irish, nor a university. The IIU, first exposed by Times Higher Education in 2004, was the subject of a special BBC investigation this week.

- On 8 January, as Times Higher Education went to press, The Guardian was predicting drama in Parliament as the Conservatives were due to call on the House of Commons to condemn the £100 million funding cuts for students taking second degrees, or equivalent or lower qualifications. A total of 211 MPs, including 86 from Labour, have already attacked the move in an early day motion.

Separately, The Guardian also reported survey results showing that school headteachers were unconvinced about the worth of the new 14-19 diplomas. In a poll of 803 headteachers, none said that they would recommend the qualification to students aspiring to enter university.

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