The week in higher education

January 8, 2009

David Lammy must be wishing he had turned down the invitation to appear on TV quiz Celebrity Mastermind. The Higher Education Minister was dubbed "Lamentable Lammy" after coming last in the specialist subject round, then doing similarly badly on general knowledge. He confused Marie Curie with Marie Antoinette, thought that Red Leicester was a blue cheese and, despite being MP for Tottenham, got a question about Spurs football club wrong. Diarist Ephraim Hardcastle, writing in the Daily Mail on 1 January, said: "A reader draws my attention to his answer to the question, 'Who acceded to the throne on the death of his father, King Henry VIII?' Lammy (London University; Havard Law School): 'King Henry VII?'"

The Daily Mail diarist was also tickled by the news that David Cannadine, former Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother professor at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London, had been knighted. "How will he feel having his shoulder tapped by the Queen he once described as the 'visible embodiment of stultifying tradition, obscurantist snobbery, unearned income and hereditary privilege?" he asked on 1 January. "A court expert says: 'Always good to see a few prodigal sons in the Honours List.'"

Universities are failing to woo poor students, The Sunday Times reported. The paper named Durham, Glasgow and Manchester as among the universities that are stepping up efforts to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that one University of Bristol widening-participation programme failed to yield a single successful applicant out of the 117 youngsters who took part, the newspaper reported on 4 January, while at the University of Sussex the dropout rate was 50 per cent higher for students recruited through access schemes than for their peers.

An elite within the elite Russell Group of universities has emerged - at least when it comes to the graduate recruitment activities of investment banks. The Financial Times said on 5 January that many banks were now recruiting only from the universities of Cambridge and Oxford and Imperial College London, having previously recruited from most of the 20 Russell Group institutions. It said this was a result of the economic downturn.

Tax plans announced by David Cameron on 5 January to help savers and pensioners would involve cutting government spending by more than £4 billion. The potential impact on universities worried Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and president of the Million+ think-tank, who said the plan would mean a sub-inflation growth in universities' income and a cut in student numbers. This, he said, would "undoubtedly restrict the chance to go to university for many students from families who have never yet had the opportunity".

This week's prize for the research most likely to secure press coverage goes to a University of Salford formula for profiling a person's character according to where they sit on a double-decker bus. Those who take a seat at the top front are forward thinkers, those at the top back are rebellious types, and those by the doors are social meeters-and-greeters, The Daily Telegraph reported, devoting the story a full page on 5 January.

The doom-mongers have been out in force since the start of the credit crunch, but one academic suggests that history offers the modern world hope. Adrian Bell, lecturer in the history of finance at the University of Reading, told the Financial Times on 6 January that England suffered a credit crunch in the 13th century but quickly recovered. Events in 1294 "included a sub-prime borrower (the king), liquidity disappearing, recriminations, the seizure of foreign-owned assets and runs on the bank," he said.

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