The week in higher education

February 21, 2008

On 14 February, most newspapers reported on the findings of a Staffordshire University/Sutton Trust study on the impact of tuition fees on students' education choices.

Following the official publication of the research, the Financial Times reported that "more than half of university-bound sixthformers are considering a local choice because of the financial implications" of studying away from home.

On its front page, The Guardian picked up on the line that teenagers continue to be put off higher education because "of fears that they will be saddled with thousands of pounds of debt".


But the next day in the FT, columnist John Wilman took issue with the research. He cited a quote from Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, who said that it was unacceptable that students have had to "abandon their dreams".

Mr Wilman countered: "First, those dreams are obviously not very compelling if the prospect of debts that will be repaid many times over by higher graduate pay is so frightening. Second, the survey found just 172 students out of a sample of 1,628 saying that they did not intend to go to university - and almost half had mediocre maths and English results at GCSE ... people who are not suited for higher education may blame fees for the decision, but it is not clear that they are a dealbreaker!"


In The Mail on Sunday on 16 February, commentator Peter Hitchens was in typically robust form. "As soon as the Government stops telling lies about education, I'll stop telling the truth about its disgraceful failure to educate our young," he said.

"Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell last week repeated the falsehood that it is the fault of Oxford and Cambridge that they take so few students from poor homes. The truth is that it is the fault of Labour and the Tories, who slammed the doors of good schools in the faces of the poor by abolishing grammar schools," Mr Hitchens said.


But on the same day, The Observer reported something of a mea culpa from the University of Cambridge about its failure to recruit more students from comprehensive schools. Geoff Parks, Cambridge director of admissions, said: "We are not doing well enough."

Cambridge's proportion of students from state schools has actually dropped from 58 per cent to 56 per cent, he said.

As part of a "new offensive", the university has decided to abandon its separate Cambridge Application Form and the associated £10 fee, and it will bring admissions in line with the rest of the sector starting in 2009.

The Sunday Times reported that more and more of the UK's brightest students are now shunning Oxbridge to take up places at US Ivy League universities.


Also on Sunday, the Prince of Wales was reported to have enhanced his reputation as a defender of traditional architecture by describing the University of Essex's Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall as "a dustbin".

The Sunday Telegraph reported a university spokeswoman saying that because the theatre was built for lectures, "it doesn't need windows and so on".


On 19 February, The Guardian reported that "universities are in more debt than at any point in the past decade".

Institutions, the paper said, were borrowing millions "to meet ambitious plans to upgrade their campuses, with students demanding better facilities because they pay fees".

The newspaper said that both Steve Egan, deputy chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and Phil Harding, chair of the British Universities Finance Directors Group, "insist they are not worried". But with the state of the economy making it a risky time to take on a lot of debt, the paper asked: "Should they be?"

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