The Week in Higher Education

March 27, 2008

- "Universities must tread carefully to avoid antagonising the University and College Union unnecessarily," said the leader column in The Independent education and careers supplement on 20 March. The newspaper had picked up Times Higher Education's report on 13 March that the University of Central Lancashire is to shorten the Easter and Christmas holidays to give students more teaching time. The paper said that while the move would be popular with students and is likely to be emulated by others, "the problem may be the academic staff, who are used to long holidays and/or clear time for research".

- There are "too many easy A levels", The Times reported on 20 March, reporting the view of the Conservative Party. The Tories said that more than 10 per cent of students are damaging their long-term prospects by taking "soft" A-level subjects, the newspaper reported. In 2006-07, nearly 24,000 students aged 16-19 studied at least two "less challenging courses such as film and media studies, travel and tourism, home economics and dance", according to figures released in a parliamentary answer.

- University College London received some unlikely coverage in The Sun on 20 March. A picture of Girls Aloud pop star Cheryl Cole was accompanied by a report that she was "taking a break from patching things up with her love-rat hubby (footballer) Ashley Cole, to film an ad for the KitKat Senses bar". Cheryl and her bandmates "braved freezing temperatures to film on the steps of University College London before the students woke up". UCL also played a minor role in Heather Mills's exceptionally high-profile divorce from Sir Paul McCartney. Referring to Ms Mills's potential future earning power, the judge in the case noted that "she is currently undertaking a part-time course at UCL in nutrition". UCL said that it has no reference to Ms Mills in its student records.

- "Graduates are being targeted with a 'stealth' increase in their student loan repayments that will net the Exchequer an extra £500 million a year," said The Daily Telegraph on 22 March. While the Government uses the Consumer Prices Index to measure the rate of inflation officially, it is still using the Retail Prices Index - which has risen at a far higher rate than the CPI - to calculate the interest rate repayments on student loans, the paper explained. "After two years of payments ... (graduates') total debt will be higher than at the start," Shadow Universities Secretary David Willetts said.

- "Whitehall is trying to drag universities from the 11th century with a radical paper that speaks of courses with a timetable and content that suits business demands - reaching its apogee in a proposal for 48-week degrees," the Financial Times reported on 24 March. But government plans to encourage more intensive and shorter degree courses, outlined in the leaked Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills strategy document obtained by the FT in February, were likely to meet with short shrift from research-intensive universities, the paper said. England's "leading universities" would "snub" the proposals, it said, as they prefer to teach in shorter terms.

- As Times Higher Education went to press, it emerged that financial difficulties are threatening job cuts at Lancaster University's department of continuing education. In a statement, the university said: "The review is ongoing, and it is clear that a substantial reduction in the activities of the department of continuing education is required." No figures were provided. A spokesman for the University and College Union branch said that the statement was "precipitate and ill judged" as the union was still involved in negotiations over "revised employment procedures".

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