The week in higher education

February 7, 2008

- The debate about "McQualifications", started by the announcement last week that fast-food giant McDonald's had won official "awarding body" status for national qualifications, kept rumbling this week.

On 30 January, The Times' columnist Richard Morrison defended the idea of McDonald's running A levels in burger bar management. "My daughter is in her final year as an undergraduate at one of the country's more distinguished universities," he wrote. "Her contact time with her lecturers and supervisors consists of precisely two group seminars a week, for about 18 weeks a year ... That's 72 hours of teaching - the equivalent of two normal working weeks for ordinary people - each year. For this, we parents fork out several thousand pounds, and she has run up debts of several thousands more."

He concluded: "The higher education scam perpetrated by our inflated rash of pseudo-universities is a gravy train long in need of brutal derailment."

Daily Mail columnist Allison Pearson also waded in: "Personally I would have more faith in McDonald's diplomas than in any certificate handed out by the exam boards. At least their trainees will have learnt something useful."

- On 31 January, the Daily Mail highlighted the rise of the "Graduate Divas" - the "lazy know-it-alls fresh from university" who are seen by company bosses as "unrealistic, self-centred, fickle and greedy". So disillusioned are the employers, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters, that they are seeking recruits from abroad.

- The Architect's Journal, followed by a number of national newspapers on 1 February, reported on the University of Kent masters course that asked architecture students to design "a full-scale operable prototype torture device based on ergonomic principles". While the newspapers were full of angry reaction to the news, Kent pointed out that only one student objected to the brief. Course leader Don Gray said that while "it is a slightly shocking introduction to a very serious long-term design project ... I don't think there is much doubt about the intellectual rigour".

- The Government's £100 million funding cut to students with first degrees studying another equivalent or lower level qualification continued to spark debate on 2 February. In the letters pages of The Times, correspondents took issue with Bishop Geoffrey Rowell's demands that the funding be restored for those studying theology degrees. Robert Townson wrote: "My applause for Hefce's decision that there are better uses for taxpayer's money is qualified only by my anger that it did not come sooner." Anthony Aust of London said: "The more important issue is not whether students who wish to be ordained should be financed by Hefce but whether English universities should continue to regard theology as suitable for academic study at all."

- The "McA levels" debate re-emerged in the Sunday papers, eliciting an endorsement of the idea by J. R. Shackleton, dean of Westminster Business School, in a letter to the Financial Times on 4 January. He said the qualifications should be recognised for university entry, adding: "I cannot see that it will be in the interest of McDonald's to push people through qualifications that will lead to them being promoted and paid more unless they genuinely deserve them."

- On 5 February, the Daily Mail reported that figures obtained by the Conservative Party suggested that "£211,500 (is) spent to get each poor student a place at university". Despite billions spent in the past five years on access initiatives, said the Mail, the number of undergraduate students from the bottom four social groups rose just 5,1 in the same five-year period, from 67,823 to 73,094.

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