The week in higher education

August 28, 2008

- "Pushy parents" risk making the lives of university admissions staff hell after being given the right to act on their children's behalf. The university admissions service Ucas has "caved in" to pressure from parents to manage their children's applications, it was widely reported on 20 August. The Times said this example of "helicopter parenting" would see some expecting to sit in on interviews for places, while The Guardian described it as "a licence to interfere".

- Those who choose not to seek their parents' advice may be interested instead in the wisdom of Ann Widdecombe, who believes that more school-leavers should consider a vocational rather than an academic route. Writing in the Daily Express, she criticised Conservative education spokesman Michael Gove for endorsing Labour's "barmy" target to get 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education. "Mr Gove is wrong. Our universities are already turning out too many students who cannot even write coherently but who have supposedly reached degree standard," she said. "Only the most suitable should go to university, but no admissions official can work out who is suited to academic education because A levels have become meaningless. What a mess."

- Ann Widdecombe is not alone in worrying about dumbing down. Andrew Dunn, from the private tutoring service the Institute of Independent College and University Tutors, said in a letter to The Independent on 20 August: "If we randomly select two candidates who sat any A level between 1965 and 1984, there is a one in 11 chance that both failed it. That figure passed one in 1,000 this year."

- "Sad tidings of finger-pointing and unkindness" within the National Union of Students were reported by The Guardian on 22 August. The recriminations followed a recent "active political training course" for union officers, following which the NUS Black Students section issued a statement detailing a string of allegations against participants. One officer allegedly warned delegates against increasing black representation in the fictional university created for training purposes, as "the presence of such students would increase gun and knife crime and so require more security". Another, according to the complainants, "thought it would be funny to hold up a poster saying 'Bring back slavery'". Wes Streeting, the NUS president, has launched an investigation.

- The triumphs of Britain's Olympic cyclists have won their coach Dave Brailsford plaudits - but the spotlight has had a knock-on effect for his academic namesake. David Brailsford, professor of computer science at the University of Nottingham, told of his shock when he saw his name splashed across the newspapers. Lamenting the perils of having a famous namesake, he recalled "choking on my coffee when I read a cycling news headline that proclaimed to all the world 'Dave Brailsford denies drug boost slur'". And he said that another interview in which the cycling coach revealed that he "doesn't do documents" was "the final straw". "Can I reassure academic colleagues that my 25-year research career in the field of digital documents has not come to an end," he said in a letter to The Guardian on 23 August.

- Supermodel Lily Cole has Cambridge's "dons in a lather" after switching courses at the last minute, The Observer reported on 24 August. Rather than reading social and political science at King's College as expected, she will take history of art when the new academic year starts in October. A Cambridge politics don told the paper: "I'd never want to belittle another academic discipline, but it's possible she'll find it easier to balance an art history degree with her other commitments."

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