The week in higher education

February 19, 2009

A report that said "white, well-off middle-class families still exert a stranglehold over the top universities" ruffled the feathers of a few vice-chancellors from new universities. The suggestion of inequality of opportunity was nothing new, but The Guardian's choice of language provoked an indignant response. A letter signed by six vice-chancellors and published on 11 February complained: "By using an outmoded pecking order of the prestige of universities, you perpetuate an error so common in today's society of making a hierarchy out of differences."

The traditional bad press generated by the University of Cambridge's May Balls started early this year, with outcry over the British Empire theme chosen by Emmanuel College. Critics accused the organising committee of celebrating colonialism in an "unnecessarily offensive" way, and on 12 February the word "empire" was dropped. Students who can afford the £130 tickets will simply be exhorted to "party like it's 1899", the BBC reported.

A judicial review to stop the Government choosing sponsors for academies has failed. Parents lobbied for a review into the case of an academy in Camden, north London, which is sponsored by University College London. It was argued that by naming a preferred bidder, the Government was breaking a promise to hold open competitions for new-school providers, The Guardian reported on 13 February.

The Government has been slammed for increasing international students' visa fees without consulting universities. Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said on 13 February that, coupled with other changes to the immigration system, the price hike suggested that the UK "does not welcome international students". The cost of a visa will rise from £99 to £145.

A spell in the doghouse looks likely for Adrian Smith, the senior civil servant who last week spoke frankly about the lack of debate on student top-up fees and suggested that education "for the masses" discriminated against bright pupils. But if the comments "disappointed" ministers, they were welcomed by scientists, The Daily Telegraph reported on 14 February. Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: "The Government gives us the message that everything is largely fine. But speak to universities and industry and you (hear) some genuine concerns."

Claims that A levels are dumbing down are an annual fixture, but now even regulator Ofqual appears to have admitted that it does not know how to stop examinations getting easier. Board papers reveal that the exams watchdog is unclear what is meant by "maintaining standards", which is a key part of its role, The Observer said on 15 February. On 17 February, the Daily Mail reported that vocational courses in tanning and cake decoration were now being given the same value as A levels in official school rankings.

The head of the Arts and Humanities Research Council is to step down to return to academia. Philip Esler told Times Higher Education on 17 February that he would return to the University of St Andrews as professor of biblical criticism at the end of August to be closer to his family. He will have served a four-year term as chief executive of the council, during which time he has faced intense disquiet from arts and humanities researchers over cuts to programmes.

"Hold the front page! Images of bikini-clad women make men more sexist," The Independent gasped on 17 February. A study of male-brain activity at Princeton University has "discovered" that men are more likely to view women as sex objects after viewing risque pictures. Surprisingly, the part of the brain stimulated by sexy pictures is also the bit men use to think about power drills and other DIY tools, the Daily Mail said.

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