The week in higher education

February 28, 2008

"Once again, the Government seems to have thrown money at a problem and got little in return," The Daily Telegraph said in its leading article on 20 February. The subject was university dropouts, a topic that continued to dominate the news agenda this week following the Public Accounts Committee's damning report that retention rates had not improved in the past five years despite an investment of £800 million.

"Having widely broadcast its determination to see to it that 50 per cent of the school-leaving population goes on to higher education, the Government appears to have ended up with an incoherent, inefficient muddle of a system," the paper said.

The Daily Mail's leader pulled fewer punches, claiming that students were "bored by unfulfilling courses, inadequately taught, in nebulous subjects such as 'leisure studies'." On 21 February it followed this up with a special feature on higher education, entitled "A degree of betrayal".


On 22 February, most national newspapers reported on the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's study comparing GCSE and A-level standards across subjects. "Media studies is an easier subject to pass at A level than English and history", The Times said. The Daily Telegraph reported that "A-level candidates can gain top grades in some subjects merely by using common sense and recounting anecdotes about their own lives". The Daily Mail said that the "easiest A levels (are) to be made harder" after the report.


The Guardian, on 23 February, reported figures unearthed by the Conservatives showing that "only 176 of the nearly 30,000 pupils who got three As at A level last year were eligible for free school meals". Figures released by the Government in response to questions from Shadow Schools Minister Michael Gove showed that "household income is the biggest single predictor of a child's chance of academic success", the paper reported.


There was good news for those pushing for universities to drop their entry requirements for students from poorly performing comprehensive schools on 25 February.

The Independent reported findings from St George's Medical School, University of London, that "youngsters with lower A-level grades from some of the country's poorest performing schools do just as well as high-flyers from the independent or selective sector in their degrees".

Under its access scheme, St George's drops its entry requirements to two Bs and a C for students from the poorest performing schools. In their first-year exams they performed as well as those with the usual requirements of two As and B.


On 26 February, the Financial Times reported on a November 2007 leaked draft of the Government's forthcoming "Higher Level Skills Strategy". The document set out plans familiar to readers of Times Higher Education: "Employers would gain significant new powers to shape higher education degrees", and the document "sets out the case for devoting the bulk of extra university funding over the next three years to degrees jointly designed and funded by employers".

The strategy document also acknowledges "significant up-front risks" for universities that embrace the agenda, and warns that "an institution may worry about its public image: whether going down this road makes it less of a 'real' university".

(See related article)


As Times Higher Education went to press, the Higher Education Statistics Agency was due to report an increase in the proportion of professors who are women. Female professors in British higher education institutions made up 17.5 per cent of all staff in 2006-07, compared with 16.7 per cent the previous year. The proportion of female academics in all grades increased from 41.9 per cent to 42.3 per cent in the same period.

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