The Week in Higher Education

August 21, 2008

- The news that this year's A-level results were yet another record-breaking crop left newspapers in statistical heaven on 14 August. "One in seven gets three As at A level," said the Daily Mail. "One in ten pupils achieves straight As in exams," countered The Independent, while Universities UK's press statement said that "approximately 3 per cent" of all 18-year-olds taking A levels will gain three A grades or more. What most agreed on was that the scramble for university places was more desperate than ever.

- By 15 August, as the analysis of the grades began, reaction was split between those focusing on doom and gloom, and those celebrating the record results. The Daily Mail's editorial said the "era of 'unfailable' A levels" was upon us, and schools were "teaching pupils how to pass exams, not learn the subject". The Daily Express begged to differ: "This newspaper will take no part in the denigration of the achievements of A-level students." The Sun concurred. "This is no time for carping. Today's exams may be different but they remain tough," it said.

- The National Union of Students warned that many undergraduates were "sleepwalking into a financial crisis" by failing to take into account the rising cost of living. An NUS study found that prospective students under-estimated the cost of university life by about £450 a year.

- Comments by Jeremy Paxman prompted a professor of Scottish literature to accuse the broadcaster of "Scotophobia" on 15 August. The Newsnight presenter, who once complained that Britain was run by "a sort of Scottish Raj", has branded the work of Robert Burns "sentimental doggerel" in an introduction to the new edition of the Chambers Dictionary. This prompted Alan Riach, professor of Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow, to accuse him in The Times of having "a difficulty about Scotland and Scottish culture".

- Tory education spokesman Michael Gove "has risked creating a rift in his party" by backing the Labour Government's target to get 50 per cent of young people into higher education, the Daily Mail reported on 16 August. In an interview with the previous day's London Evening Standard the Shadow Minister said: "There shouldn't be a cap on aspiration."

- Kelly Osbourne, daughter of heavy-metal music legend and reality television star Ozzy, had some sage advice for those who had not "made the grade" in their A levels. "It isn't the end of the world," she said in The Sun on Saturday. "I make no secret of the fact that I didn't sit mine," she added.

- The Sunday Times reported on 17 August: "Women can win cash payments of £1,000 a year to study science as universities struggle to fill places on undersubscribed courses." The paper said that its "undercover" reporters, posing as would-be students, had found a "booming market in cash awards to fill some courses".

- Also on Sunday, the Daily Star offered an "essential guide to what Britain's uni students really need to know". The paper reported that the "best" male to female ratio was enjoyed by students at Bishop Grosseteste University (where 87 per cent of students are female), while the "worst" was at Imperial College London, where 64 per cent of students are male. The "cheapest pint" is available at University College Falmouth (£1.18) while the most expensive is at Napier University (£2.95).

- On 19 August, The Independent reported on the "dramatic decline" in foreign languages studied at university. Research from London's School of Oriental and African Studies showed that 610 students were accepted on to German degree courses last year, compared with 2,288 ten years ago. The numbers taking French have dropped by a third to 3,700 in the same period.

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