The week in higher education

January 17, 2008

It is the news story that just will not go away for the Government. On 10 January, The Guardian’s political pundit Michael White waded into the row over ministers’ plans to cut ?100 million funding for students taking second degrees. He said Labour loyalists feared that the Government was harming The Open University ­ “the jewel in the party’s crown”.

On the same day, The Independent said an “intellectual war of words” had erupted between evolutionists Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford and Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University over “group selection”, the theory that individual animals may sacrifice themselves for the good of a colony. Professor Dawkins, who dismisses the theory, was reported to have said: “Evidently Wilson’s weird infatuation with ‘group selection’ goes way back; unfortunate for a biologist who is so justly influential.”

On 11 January, the news was dominated by a Sutton Trust survey showing that state school­teachers, who had “alarming misconceptions” about Oxbridge, were not encouraging bright students to apply.

Academics are “highly committed but have low job satisfaction and poor health because they feel that their efforts are not recognised”, The Times reported on 12 January. The survey from the universities of Bedfordshire and Leeds was also covered in The Daily Telegraph, which said that many academics were “over-committed” to their jobs.

The Sunday Telegraph took David Lammy, Minister for Skills, to task on 13 January for his “strong ­ some would say slavish” support for US presidential hopeful Barack Obama. Mr Lammy was quoted as comparing Mr Obama to Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy in encapsulating the nation’s hopes and dreams.

On the same day, The Observer reported worrying news from the University of Oxford ­ membership of its notorious Bullingdon Dining Club has slumped to just four. “You have to be ready to spend a fair bit of cash to join, because you have to have a tailcoat made, not to mention hefty restaurant refurbishment bills,” a source explained.

The Daily Telegraph on 14 January reported concerns that under the Education Bill going through Parliament “schools would be banned from encouraging bright pupils to take A levels instead of new vocational courses”. The Daily Mirror said that the move “follows speculation that [A levels] could be abolished after 2013”.

On 15 January, The Times reported the concerns of John Denham, the Universities Secretary, that the emphasis on “published and peer-reviewed work over public policy advice” in the research assessment system could be discouraging academics from engaging in policy work. He said there was a need for a discussion on what more could be done.

The Guardian of 15 January reported on a book by Thomas Docherty, professor of English at the University of Warwick, in which he describes the Quality Assurance Agency as “a cancer that gnaws at the core of knowledge, value and freedom in education”.

As Times Higher Education went to press, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service was to confirm an “impressive recovery” in student numbers following a slump after the introduction of top-up tuition fees. The number of full-time students accepted on to undergraduate courses starting in 2007 rose by 5.8 per cent, while the overall number of applications was up 5.6 per cent.

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