The week in higher education

August 14, 2008

Parents "dread" their children going to university because they fear financial ruin as they struggle to pay for higher education, according to a survey widely reported on 7 August. "University, a parent's nightmare," the Daily Mail said after the poll by Norwich Union found that one in five parents sacrifices their pension to send their children to university.

Unemployment among graduates bucked the national trend by falling over the past year. The proportion unemployed six months after graduation fell from 6.1 per cent to 5.6 per cent in 12 months - but it is still above the national unemployment rate of 5.2 per cent, the Daily Mail reported on 8 August.

Students were given a withering assessment by a misanthropic academic on 9 August. Slavojzizek, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities and professor at the European Graduate School, was interviewed in The Guardian's Weekend magazine. Asked to name the worst job he had ever done, he said: "Teaching. I hate students, they are - as most people - mostly stupid and boring."

A don at one of the University of Cambridge's richest colleges has said it could sponsor an academy. Matthias Dorrzapf, a senior tutor at St John's College, told the Financial Times on 9 August that "you could have dons giving lessons and being on the governing body". If it were to join the academy programme, which aims to raise standards by creating semi-independent state schools, it would be the first Oxbridge college to do so.

A less optimistic outlook in The Sunday Telegraph warned of "dim prospects for our brightest stars" if universities act on plans to ignore the new A* grade at A level. An investigation by the paper found that several universities fear that the new grade, to be introduced to differentiate between the top-performing students, would mean offering more places to privately schooled pupils. Among those with reservations were the universities of Oxford - which said it was "highly unlikely" to use the grade in offers until "there is a sense of the probable grade distribution" - Exeter, Bath and Bristol.

The Government may want a far higher university participation rate than it has achieved, but John Denham has admitted that some students would be better off elsewhere. In the Financial Times on 11 August, the Universities Secretary said: "There are certainly young people who currently go to university who would have been better off on an Advanced Apprenticeship. We have been in danger of making it sound as if university is the only real aspiration." In an editorial the next day, the Daily Mail said: "At last, the blindingly obvious dawns on John Denham. Couldn't he have discovered this long ago by listening to universities?"

In the week that A-level results were released, there were a number of exam stories in the press. On 11 August, The Guardian said A-level and GCSE results were being inflated as papers falling just short of a grade boundary were re-marked, often adding a few vital points. This may be investigated by exams watchdog Ofqual after the announcement of a review of public exam integrity this autumn, reported The Independent. The Daily Telegraph quoted statistics suggesting that the number of students taking A levels had fallen to a six-year low. The Tories attributed this to "tinkering and confusion" by the Government driving students away. The Times focused on a warning from Mike Cresswell, head of the AQA exam board, that thousands of pupils starting out on the new diploma could be left with nothing to show for their studies after two years. He said those who do not complete the full course could be left "high and dry". On 12 August, a report by the Institute of Directors suggested that A-level standards were falling at a rate of one grade a decade, the Daily Mail said.

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