The Week in Higher Education

June 12, 2008

- Plans by Imperial College London to introduce its own entrance exam sparked a flurry of headlines. Sir Richard Sykes, rector of Imperial, told the Independent Schools Council's annual conference in London that A-level grade inflation had "destroyed" the college's ability to discriminate between bright and average applicants. The Daily Telegraph, on 4 June, reported Sir Richard's comments that the A level had become "almost worthless" and that it was "frightening" that four in ten Imperial students came from private schools. "Everybody who applies has got three As or four As - they are not very useful," he is reported to have said. Sir Richard said that "a lot of universities" were considering similar plans.

- On 5 June, there was much hand-wringing about university dropout rates following publication of the annual university performance indicators. Daily Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon had a confession to make. "I might as well come clean," she wrote. "I am a dropout. A good for nothing, low-down, dirty dropout without a degree."

But because "for most young people university is just a way to stave off the real world for a little longer ... there's nothing wrong with choosing life over education, education, education", she concluded.

- The Daily Mail's political commentator Ross Clark had plenty to say on the dropout figures on 6 June. Under the heading "You don't need a degree to work out why so many are quitting university", he argued that the drive to boost higher education "has been a miserable failure. The university system is sucking in huge numbers of students who are unsuited to academic study."

- Jonathan Bate, professor of English at the University of Warwick, made waves at the weekend. Based on claims by Professor Bate, The Sunday Times on 8 June reported that "university academics claim they are under pressure to upgrade degrees to at least a 2:1 to boost their institutions' position in league tables". Professor Bate had told the newspaper that before he left his previous job at the University of Liverpool in 2003 he was told that improving the university's status depended on increasing the number of firsts and upper second-class degrees awarded. Liverpool denied the claims. In The Sunday Times, Professor Bate wrote of his personal dilemma as he "settles down" to his huge pile of final exam scripts this year. "I'm steeling myself to resist ... the temptation to give my students higher grades than those they would have received for the same quality of work 20 or even ten years ago," he said. "We all know that anything less than an upper second will see our students consigned to the job scrapheap."

- Meanwhile, in The Observer, columnist Nick Cohen picked up an article Professor Bate had written in the new magazine Standpoint, in which he "despairs of the absurdity" of the research assessment exercise. Professor Bate claims that "professors of foreign language have been more generous in rating the work of their peers than professors of English," Mr Cohen reported. "Officially, our universities are now world leaders in the study of French literature but awful at studying English literature." The reason, according to Professor Bate, is that some professors "covered each other's backs and looked after each other's departments", while others did not.

- "Around 11 per cent of all students studying for a higher education qualification - some 166,000 - are doing so in further colleges," The Guardian reported on 10 June. And their share could increase further still, as colleges now have the legal right to apply for powers to award their own two-year foundation degrees. However, John Middowson, principal of New College Durham, sounded a note of caution. "We need to be very conscious of quality because nobody wants to offer second-class provision," he said.

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