The week in higher education

June 18, 2009

The appointment of Sir Alan Sugar, star of The Apprentice, as Gordon Brown's enterprise czar was grist to the mill for David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Minister. Addressing an audience of about 900 university staff at the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards on 9 June, he joked: "I'm sure you're all looking forward to reporting to Alan Sugar."

It was no doubt an honest mistake: the Newcastle Journal, reporting on Lord Mandelson's new role on 10 June, said he "rules over a sprawling department for BINS". Officially, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is known as BIS.

"President-of-everything Mandelson could yet rescue our universities - if he can halt the ruinous reliance on state money." So wrote Simon Jenkins in The Guardian on 11 June, predicting a bleak financial outlook for higher education and arguing the case for higher tuition fees on the grounds that universities are in essence "a consumer service, not a national investment". The University and College Union's Sally Hunt called the piece "a slap in the face for people who believe in a free and inclusive education sector".

Britain is at risk of losing its best scientific minds to its international rivals as a result of "confused" priorities within the research councils, a professor of space physics has said. In a letter to The Times on 12 June, Ken £of the University of Leicester said the councils should be seeking "budgetary stimulus", as scientific and medical research charities in the US and Germany have received. "Without that, the increasingly confused priorities of the UK research councils will only enhance the current disillusion in the science community and stimulate a new brain drain," he wrote. "Over to you, Lord Mandelson."

Whatever else it means for universities, Lord Mandelson's new responsibility for higher education has resulted in media interest in the sector going through the roof. On 12 June, his super-ministry was dubbed the "Empire of Mandelsonia" in The Times. "The Empire, a feudal state that exists within our democracy, is ruled over by the eponymous Lord Mandelson, whose title is now 34 words long," a sketch in the paper said. "It would be no surprise to wake up in the morning and find he'd become an archbishop," noted William Hague.

Beggars - and, at present, prime ministers - can't be choosers, and Gordon Brown will take all the support he can get.

Nevertheless, it will have been particularly welcome from a Nobel prizewinning economist. Paul Krugman, a professor at Princeton University, said during a visit to London that Britain's economy is in better shape than many of its rivals and that the Prime Minister should be given the credit. "I think the UK economy looks the best in Europe at the moment," he said on 14 June. "If the Government can hold off an election until next year, Labour might well be able to run as 'the people who brought Britain out of the slump'."

Two students at Kingston University have claimed that their lecturers' accents are to blame for their failing to succeed in their academic pursuit. The pair, who spoke anonymously, said on 14 June that they found some of the tutors on their economics course so incomprehensible that it was pointless attending classes. "One of the lecturers had real problems saying basic words - like 'zero', which he pronounced 'chino'," one student said. "That is confusing when talking about economics." The university responded that "the academic job market is international" and that just under half of its economics lecturers were foreign.

Two thirds of A-level students who would normally get into university through the clearing system will be left without a place this year, a survey suggests. A poll by The Times on 16 June found that among a sample of ten universities that usually take significant numbers of students through clearing, the number of places being made available this year will fall by 58 per cent. This is a result of a huge increase in the number of applications and a freeze on university places imposed by the Government to correct a funding miscalculation last year.

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