The week in higher education

July 24, 2008

- Universities are shunning A levels for their own admissions tests because the examinations lack credibility, The Independent reported on 17 July. According to Universities UK, at least 18 universities are setting their own tests, equal to one in seven of its 132 members. Sir Richard Sykes, former rector of Imperial College London, said A-level grade inflation had "destroyed" institutions' ability to discriminate between bright and average students.

- A 91-year-old veteran of the Second World War has become the oldest person to be awarded a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Michael Cobb began his book The Railways of Great Britain: A Historical Atlas in 1978 and spent 18 years travelling every train line in the UK. In the Daily Mirror on 17 July he said: "I was 62 when I started and never thought of a PhD."

- Students who do better than expected in their A levels will be given five days to "trade up" to a better university, in a move ordered by the Government. The change from August 2009 aims to give pupils who were underestimated by their teachers or lacked the confidence to apply to an elite university a second chance, The Times reported on 17 July.

- The University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University should merge, the latter's outgoing chancellor has said. Newsreader Jon Snow made the comments, it was reported on 18 July, as he left the post after seven years, to be replaced by civil liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti. He said: "I wouldn't be surprised if, in 20 years' time, there were not simply a huge university city, in which fusion had occurred."

- Former Education Secretary David Blunkett "reignited" the row over university access in the pages of The Independent on 21 July. He accused the University of Cambridge of paying only "lip service" to widening access to state school pupils and said that the University of Oxford was showing "great resistance" to adapting to the 21st century.

- Prime Minister Gordon Brown has "hit back at the UK lecturers' boycott" of Israeli academics, The Independent on Sunday reported. He has launched a new academic exchange programme between the countries, "which will help to undermine attempts to boycott Israeli universities", the paper said. But some pro-Israel campaigners described the £20,000 contributed by the UK Government to the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership (Briax) as "an insult".

- More than 20,000 graduates were overcharged for their student loans last year, The Independent reported on 22 July. Money continued to be taken from their salaries despite the fact they had already paid back their loans, it said. Liberal Democrat Higher Education Spokesman Stephen Williams attributed this to "bureaucratic incompetence".

- The Government has "contributed to a loss of public confidence in exam standards", according to Greg Watson, head of University of Cambridge's exam board. The Guardian reported on 22 July that Professor Watson said that, since 1997, the Government had become so closely involved in the exam system and had introduced so many rapid reforms that it had risked the credibility of A levels and GCSEs. "The public is not sure any more. There's too much change too often," he said. Meanwhile, the Conservatives this week said they were setting up a commission of inquiry into the future of school exams, led by former Imperial College London head Sir Richard Sykes, according to the BBC. The Guardian reported that the inquiry will look into whether it is necessary to test children at seven, 11 and 14 and examine what can be done to restore the credibility of the exam system for higher education and business.

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