The week in higher education

June 11, 2009

Pope John Paul II, Jade Goody and Apple founder Steve Jobs all had obituaries published before their demise (still to come in Jobs' case). Herman Daly, the US economist, has not quite joined this select group, but was recently given an idea of the likely tone of his summing-up by The Guardian. A correction in the paper on 3 June said: "A column wrongly included Daly in a list of great dead economists. He is, in fact, alive and well and a professor at the University of Maryland."

Germaine Greer has never been afraid of ruffling feathers, and she appears to have ruffled a few during a lecture at the Royal Academy. According to the London Evening Standard on 3 June, the Australian-born academic laid into the tradition of royal portraiture, declaring it "pointless, vacuous and stunted". A member of the audience hit back, telling the paper: "It was about her usual obsessions: tribal art, Aborigines and a tilt at the privileged and art-buying middle classes. Not exactly an intellectual humdinger."

The 300-year-old tradition of undergraduates at the University of Cambridge gathering around a board to discover their degree results is to end, it emerged on 4 June. To make the experience less stressful, students are to receive their grades privately, with marks being made public later. Ant Bagshaw, education officer at the Cambridge University Students' Union, welcomed the change, adding that perpetuating the old system had been "tradition for tradition's sake". But Daily Mail columnist Tom Utley branded the students "pathetic wimps" for complaining.

Rumours that he was replacing John Denham as Universities Secretary proved wide of the mark, as did talk that he had been drafted in to help Gordon Brown tell rebel MPs: "You're fired." Instead, sightings of Sir Alan Sugar, star of reality-TV show The Apprentice, outside 10 Downing Street the day before the Cabinet reshuffle were explained when the embattled Prime Minister - a firm friend of Sir Alan - announced on 5 June that he had appointed the famously gruff businessman as his "enterprise czar".

Academic economists are "well behind the curve" set by economics journalists, a teaching fellow of University College London has said. In a letter to the Financial Times on 5 June, Hugh Goodacre decried the research assessment exercise's effects on the discipline, saying it had led to the gradual elimination of economic history and thought. In the 2008 RAE, economics scored the highest grade-point average of any discipline.

Students are reported to be turning to private tutors in increasing numbers because they feel that the teaching they receive on their degree courses is inadequate. The Sunday Times spoke to several students who admitted to paying up to £40 an hour for additional tutoring, and to private tutor agencies that said business was up as much as 30 per cent on last year. The paper said on 7 June that "institutions where the practice is becoming established include Oxford, University College London and Warwick".

"Universities sex scandal!" trumpeted a headline in The Sun on 8 June. However, those hoping for a salacious read will have been disappointed because the story was not about torrid campus affairs, but rather a report that found that "women are trouncing men at Britain's universities". The report by the Higher Education Policy Institute received widespread coverage, but no other paper managed a headline as eye-catching (or misleading) as The Sun's.

"Edu-babble" has been identified as a threat to the British education system by a University of Oxford study. The Nuffield Review into education for 14-19-year-olds warns that teachers' efforts are being stymied by "Orwellian language seeping through government documents" that is dominating educational planning. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said on 9 June: "We call it 'edu-babble'. It completely denudes education."

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