The week in higher education

May 22, 2008

The report in last week's Times Higher Education that Lancaster University professor Geraint Johnes had been reprimanded for data protection breaches after responding to a mother's complaint about her son's tuition was picked up by newspaper commentators on 16 May. "I would have been angry and embarrassed if my parents had written to my director of studies at Cambridge suggesting that I was smoking, drinking and sleeping too much and working too little (true though the complaint would have been, in every particular)," said Daily Mail pundit Tom Uttley. But now, as a "middle-aged parent" himself, he is entirely on the side of the mother. "The truth is that most 18-year-old students are not nearly as capable of fending for themselves as they would like to think."

The success of the move by King's College London to lower entry grades to its medical degrees for students from poorer backgrounds while offering them additional tuition attracted much comment. The Daily Telegraph reported that "students who have achieved no better than a C grade at A level are being trained to become doctors", noting that "the pilot scheme was questioned by doctors who asked if the £190,000 a year cost was worthwhile or little more than political correctness". The British Medical Journal had revealed that the first cohort of the "extended medical degree" at King's had performed as well as traditional students, with 12 per cent getting firsts and 76 per cent an upper second (compared with 28 per cent and 65 per cent on the traditional course).

The Daily Star Sunday informed us, on 18 May, that "Britain's universities are gearing up for a flood of new archaeology students - thanks to Indiana Jones". The new film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, with Harrison Ford as "the whip-cracking adventurer, will inspire a new generation of youngsters to dig into the past", the paper reported.

The Sunday Times must have made uncomfortable reading for the University of Oxford. Not only did the newspaper prematurely reveal details of the university's forthcoming campaign to raise £1 billion through benefactions, which is due to be formally announced with a major press soiree next week, but it also reported that one important donor may have turned his back on the university. "Zvi Meitar, who is one of Israel's richest men and who now lives in London, accused the university of 'ridiculous', 'foolish' and 'offensive' behaviour," the newspaper reported. Mr Meitar was furious that Oxford rejected his offer of a £1 million sculpture, and he warned that the snub could jeopardise millions of pounds of planned gifts.

A "backlash" against "soft A levels" was reported by the Daily Mail on 19 May. Universities are warning that "students who take too many 'soft' A levels run the risk of rejection", the paper said. "One in three A levels is taken in a subject that top universities deem poor preparation for degree courses", including art and design, business studies and media studies.

The boundaries of science were pushed back this week. This was the general consensus of the papers on 20 May after MPs voted to allow the creation of hybrid embryos that have a combination of human and animal DNA. After a debate in Parliament that lasted for almost seven hours, MPs rejected by a large majority attempts by backbench Conservative MPs to reject the technology. The move "will help to keep the UK at the forefront of international efforts to harness the potential of stem-cell research for the benefit of human health," said Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, chief executive of the Medical Research Council.

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