The week in higher education

July 16, 2009

A grilling of Lord Mandelson by MPs responsible for scrutinising his new "super-ministry", which is responsible for higher education, began with a penis joke. On 7 July, the First Secretary was reminded of the advisory role played by Willie Whitelaw when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. He was then asked by Peter Luff, chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee: "So, are you this Prime Minister's Willie?" After a pause, Lord Mandelson turned the titters into guffaws by replying that he was "tempted to extend the metaphor". "Decorum," he said, prevented him from doing so.

Police have apologised to a lecturer who was handcuffed in front of his young family during a raid on his home. Ike Ogbar, senior lecturer in marketing management at Northumbria University, was targeted in an early-morning operation on 10 July when police smashed down his door. They were acting on an incorrect tip-off that the family was part of a drug ring.

Bright but poor students who live close to elite universities could be guaranteed places from the age of 15, under proposals announced on 11 July. Plans tabled by educational charity the Sutton Trust would see 5 to 10 per cent of a school's most academic students identified early and given offers. Pupils might be asked to meet the university's minimum entry requirements, or to achieve slightly lower grades if they complete an extended project. The group would also be given extra support, including advice sessions, mentoring and revision classes, from year 11 to year 13.

Historians are among a growing number of academic writers who are turning to fiction to maintain their incomes. Some academic authors are reported to have found that books that would previously have earned them an advance of up to £120,000 are now getting just £30,000. Tristram Hunt, lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London, who is believed to have received a six-figure advance for his biography of Friedrich Engels, said on 11 July: "There is a dangerous tendency among historians to slide into historical fiction, which must be avoided at all costs."

Almost half of the UK's most selective universities will increase the number of degree subjects requiring straight A grades at A level. According to a survey by the Financial Times, of the top 24 universities in the land, ten will demand more triple-A scores from students, while two - the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London - will also ask for A* grades in some subjects. Despite the change, the universities denied they had raised entry requirements in response to the squeeze on student places, the FT reported on 11 July.

The University of Oxford could shake off its reliance on state funding if it raises enough from donations and charges higher fees, its outgoing vice-chancellor has said. John Hood said on 12 July that "if Oxford is successful in its endowment-raising, we could see it taking less government money for teaching". However, Professor Hood, who is stepping down after five years, added that the future he envisaged was "more complex than simply saying Oxford should go private".

The education director of a centre-right think-tank has lifted the lid on life as a "Tory woman", announcing that, unlike some of her peers, she "does not aspire to big hair". Anna Fazackerley, head of arts, culture and education at Policy Exchange, was profiled by The Observer newspaper on 12 July alongside a host of other female Tories. She said she found it hard to find role models for women in politics: "I can't say I find any of them ... thrilling."

After vice-chancellor John Hood's ruminations on future funding at the University of Oxford, academics there have predicted that it is likely to treble its tuition fees "as soon as the Government allows it". Iain McLean, a politics professor at Nuffield College, Oxford, said on 14 July that he expects the university to raise its fees to £10,000 a year "early in Cameron's first term" if the Conservatives win the next election. David Palfreyman, fellow and bursar of New College, Oxford, said raising the cap on fees was "almost inevitable", predicting an increase to "£7,500 at least".

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