The week in higher education

October 2, 2008

An academic's definition of what is and is not art took on great significance in a court case involving an alleged terrorist. Michael Stone, 53, is accused of attempting to murder Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, as well as facing charges of possessing nail and pipe bombs. However, he claims he is a performance artist and the weapons were part of an art "installation", the Belfast Telegraph reported on 25 September. Giving evidence at Belfast Crown Court, Peter Bond, senior art lecturer at Central St Martin's College, University of the Arts London, said having nail bombs "could come under the ambit" of art, so long as their owner had "no intention whatsoever of lighting them".

A student who attended her graduation ceremony watched by her family was given a bill for overdue library books instead of a degree certificate when she took to the stage. Ann Watt, 52, who worked in a care home in the evenings to fund her BSc in psychology and sociology, said her treatment by Bucks New University had ruined her day. The university told The Daily Telegraph on 26 September that "as a publicly funded body we have a duty to recover any outstanding debts".

University "ghost towns" are to be tackled under plans to disperse student digs. A government report has been published on ways to reduce the clustering of student houses, which can lead to whole neighbourhoods emptying in the summer. However, Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, told The Guardian on 26 September that extra bureaucracy could put landlords off renting to students.

A survey of cheating at 73 UK universities found that London Metropolitan University was "worse than any other", The Times reported on 29 September. Setting aside questions such as whether some universities may be better at addressing and discovering cheating than others, the paper said figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that London Met caught 65 students cheating in formal exams last year and had a record 801 plagiarists. Westminster University had the second-highest number, with 39 exam cheats.

As higher education staff unions sat down together to discuss next year's pay deal, there were confused messages about the role of one major player in proceedings. On 29 September, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) hailed the first meeting of a newly constituted Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff (JNCHES) a success. But it acknowledged that the University and College Union, which represents tens of thousands of academic staff, attended the meeting only as an "observer". In its own press release issued the same day, the UCU announced that the JNCHES "lacks credibility" and "got off to a faltering start". While Ucea was "pleased" that the UCU "felt able to participate", the UCU insisted it attended only to "restate the union's dissatisfaction with the committee". The UCU is refusing to join the JNCHES, as it objects to negotiating issues specific to academic and academic-related staff with unions representing support staff, and is concerned about the timetable for pay talks, which it fears may restrict its ability to negotiate effectively.

A report has identified 17 universities that lower the A-level grade requirement for applicants from the poorest performing schools. The Guardian reported on 30 September that research by the Higher Education Funding Council for England found that universities, including Newcastle and Birmingham, tailored offers to promising state-school applicants, improving their chances against privately schooled rivals. Critics argued that such policies discriminated against other applicants. The report also warned that "many universities fail to discriminate properly in their targeting of students, which will prompt fears that in some areas middle-class children who would have gone to university anyway could be benefiting from the schemes".

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