The week in higher education

June 26, 2008

- White working-class boys are turning their back on university, according to new research. A government-funded study found that white teenagers were less likely to go to university than school-leavers from other ethnic groups with similar exam results. Some 23 per cent of white males went to university, compared with 30 per cent of black African, 58 per cent of Indian, 33 per cent of Pakistani and 60 per cent of Chinese male pupils. The Daily Mail on 19 June said that this was evidence of an "emerging underclass shut out of higher education and top jobs".

- The headline writers knew a gift when they saw it, with The Sun among several newspapers plumping for "Jelly wrestler throws a wobbly" after a University of Cambridge student was cautioned for assault. The "bikini-clad" Classics student is alleged to have punched a spectator during an unusual event at a graduation-day party, it was reported on 20 June. Nadia Witkowski, 23, wrestled other students in a paddling pool filled with jelly, but things turned nasty when she lost and was booed by the crowd.

- The Government's eagerness to jump into bed with business to mould education policy to industry's needs was rewarded with a slap in the face this week. The Confederation of British Industry withdrew support for the 14-19 diplomas, saying employers had no appetite for the reforms. The CBI's concerns focus on plans for diplomas in science, humanities and languages, which it warns cover the same ground as GCSEs or A levels. As was reported on 23 June, Richard Lambert, the CBI's director-general, also warned that diplomas could lead to a "two-tier" education system, with a widening divide between private and state schools. Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, insisted that they "bring subjects to life and give students the skills employers want".

- Pulling no punches as she painted a picture of lamentable decline, broadcaster and journalist Libby Purves blamed the "mercenary, media-driven age" for an "unravelling" of academic rigour. Writing in The Times on 23 June, she decried as "piffling" universities' constant offerings of "alluring lap dances to the media to buff up their images". She warned against turning academics into "stars", suggesting that - as in the case of consultant psychiatrist and media commentator Raj Persaud, who was suspended for three months this week after admitting plagiarism - "the pressure can dent their scruples". She also said that reports of grade inflation, inadequate literacy among overseas students and attempts to subvert the National Student Survey "hang together worryingly". "Commercial pressures and media vanity are eroding the serene old castle and a new generation risks failing to understand what scholarship is," she wrote.

- Disquiet about falling standards was also voiced by the head of the Quality Assurance Agency, who called for the "rotten" degree-classification system to be scrapped. Peter Williams, speaking to the BBC on 24 June, said universities were "shooting themselves in the foot" by giving students of differing abilities similar grades, describing the classification system as "arbitrary and unreliable". He also said some institutions were overreliant on income from overseas students and suggested that the use of recruitment agents further damaged standards. "There is a belief from some overseas students that if they pay their fees, they will get a degree. We have to make clear that does not operate here," he said. Also under the QAA spotlight is the effectiveness of external examiners, although Mr Williams said they should not be mistaken for "inspectors" and rebuffed suggestions that their reports should be made public.

- In a late-breaking development, the Government pledged £67 million to a £200 million project to rebuild the Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge.

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