The week in higher education

February 14, 2008

Could TV presenters Richard and Judy "do for A-level English what they have done for book clubs around the country?" This was the question asked on 6 February by The Times, after it emerged that the exam board OCR had given schools the chance to pick their own set texts.

The Times explained that the couple's book club is so popular that it can "send sales of their recommended books soaring by as much as 3,000 per cent". The OCR hopes that if schools picked texts recommended by the television personalities, "a little of their literary magic" might rub off on pupils.

- The Daily Telegraph reported on 6 February that Gordon Brown had given "a clear signal that A levels would be axed as he refused to guarantee the future of the traditional qualifications" despite repeated pressing at Prime Minister's Questions in Parliament. The examination of 14 to 19-year-olds is up for review in 2012.

- There was much controversy on 8 February over the revelation that prisoners have claimed at least £500,000 in student grants and loans for taking courses while in jail. A loophole that allowed the payments has now been closed, the Government confirmed. The Sun pointed out that convicts including "Moors murderer Myra Hindley ... could have benefited", as she studied for a degree in prison. But it added: "It is not known if they claimed cash."

- The Guardian reported on 8 February that Terry Eagleton, "Britain's leading Marxist literary critic, faces the axe at the University of Manchester". The paper pointed out that Professor Eagleton is due to reach retirement age in July, while the university is seeking to lose 650 jobs to clear a £30 million debt. "Discussions are continuing regarding his future role," a Manchester spokesman said.

- Most newspapers followed up the Times Educational Supplement's 8 February news that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is investigating the quality of A-level marking after receiving complaints of "bizarre" grades from at least nine schools and colleges, including Eton. Eton College reportedly produced examples of two pupils whose Russian A-level papers were initially awarded zero marks, but after being re-marked the two received A grades.

- The Observer reported on 10 February that "low morale (is) devastating art colleges". Artist Graham Crowley, a former painting tutor at the Royal College of Art, spoke out with a warning that an "admin culture" will "stop the contemporary art renaissance in its tracks". Also in The Observer, Gordon Brown renewed his call for universities to work with academy schools as part of a drive to "unleash talent" by "eradicating failure" in schools.

- In The Guardian, the Kremlin was "accused of mounting an unprecedented attack on academic freedom after one of Russia's top universities was closed" on 11 February.

The European University at St Petersburg has been forced, by a court order, to suspend its teaching after officials claimed that its historic buildings were "a fire risk". But academics said the move was politically motivated, following "a row last year over a programme funded by the European Commission to improve the monitoring of Russian elections".

- On 12 February, the BBC reported on the escalating row in Turkey over its Parliament's decision to overturn a ban on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf in universities. The Government argued that allowing headscarves to be worn was crucial to ensuring that all women had equal access to higher education, but protesters said the move violated the existing strict division between religion and politics in Turkey.

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