The week in higher education

January 24, 2008

- A levels and university access dominated national daily newspapers' higher education coverage this week. On 16 January, The Daily Telegraph reported that "hundreds of leading schools are preparing to ditch A levels in favour of a more demanding qualification". It said top schools were "likely" to move to the University of Cambridge's Pre-U. The Guardian said the Pre-U would soon get the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's go-ahead.

- On 17 January, David Baker, the principal of University College Plymouth St Mark and St John, criticised pre-1992 institutions for "failing" students from low-income backgrounds. In The Independent, he wrote that "the elitist culture and strong research focus ... can prove an intimidating barrier to entry" for some students.

- The next day, The Times cited figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, previewed in last week's Times Higher Education, showing that a record 413,000 students started degree courses last year. The Financial Times focused on the large rise in enrolments for overseas students - up by 8 per cent to almost 50,000.

- On 19 January, several newspapers reported on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's desire to review A-level maths amid claims by some teachers that it was "too easy". The QCA, The Guardian reported, had proposed an advanced version to "stretch the most able pupils". The Times reported a "surge in applications" for sixth-form places at state boarding schools from parents who believed they offered "a perfect preparation for the independence of university".

- Ahead of the release of the Office for Fair Access report, The Sunday Telegraph on 20 January reported views by "the Government's access tsar", Sir Martin Harris, that "potential Oxbridge students should be identified at 11 and given special mentoring ... to help them compete for a place".

- The Mail on Sunday, meanwhile, reported on speculation that model Portia Freeman was pop star Pete Doherty's latest girlfriend - and quoted her father, University College London anthropologist Luke Freeman, saying: "My daughter isn't having a relationship with Pete Doherty." UCL was quick to point to a small flaw in the story. Dr Freeman does not have a daughter.

- The Times reported on 21 January on "an exclusive podcast" from Sir James Dyson. The inventor warned that enthusiasm for subjects such as media studies was harming the nation's ability to combat economic and environmental problems. The UK produced only 24,000 engineering graduates a year compared with 450,00 in India, he said. One reason he cited was the image of scientists as "bearded men with a questionable taste in jumpers".

- The Government's new guidelines on tackling campus extremism dominated coverage on 22 January. The Guardian reported that universities are being advised to reject demands for separate prayer and washing facilities to prevent religious segregation. They should also "consider sharing information on violent Islamist speakers" and ban them from addressing students. The Times said university leaders had "agreed to inform the police of any extremist behaviour by students or visiting speakers". Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, stressed that monitoring should not compromise "legitimate" research into the origins of violent extremism.

- As Times Higher Education went to press, MPs were set to call on the Medical Research Council to detail its proposed support for a £500 million new super lab planned for St Pancras, London, "as a matter of urgency". A report from the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee was due to raise concerns about the lack of hard figures on the cost, and the timetable and project management of the venture.

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