The week in higher education

August 13, 2009

Weighing in at 80,000 words, the first PhD in text messaging was longer than the 160 characters of a standard SMS. The doctorate was completed by Caroline Tagg, who spent three and a half years researching the language of texts at the University of Birmingham. Her conclusions, reported on 6 August, included the finding that texts mimic speech more effectively than writing does, relying on verbal pauses such as "erm" and "oh", and made-up words and spellings based on phonetics.

A leading economist has said that he "does not know a single economics professor who supports the view from the research councils that ... funding proposals should be evaluated by their economic impact". Writing on 6 August, Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick, said he was "heartened" by Lord Mandelson's recent statement that the function of a university is "not limited to - or primarily about - economic outcomes". But he added: "It is odd that such a thing even had to be said."

It may be August, but woe betide anyone who implies that academics are all lounging on a beach somewhere. Responding to such a suggestion in The Independent on 6 August, Patrick Corbett, professor of petroleum geoengineering at Heriot-Watt University, said he was allotted six weeks off each year, the same as when he worked in the private sector. "When in industry, I made sure I took all my vacation. Now, taking one's allowance might be in our plan, but it is one of the easiest targets to 'opt' to miss," he said.

With the annual scramble for university places through the clearing process expected to offer slim pickings this year, The Sunday Times pointed an accusing finger at universities that are expanding international student numbers even as they enforce a government cap on domestic enrolments. On 9 August, the paper said that up to 40,000 British hopefuls would not get places, but that "overseas students are still welcome". David Willetts, the Shadow Universities Secretary, said: "The brutal fact is that foreign students bring in much more money than British ones."

It is an unlikely diet for a man often said to be more powerful than the Prime Minister, but it has emerged that Lord Mandelson "subsists on green tea and granola". This titbit about the First Secretary, whose responsibilities include higher education, was revealed in a profile in The Guardian, which also said that he "made a woman cry" during a recent train journey and considers himself a "pussycat". The piece came in a week when the media's preoccupation with Lord Mandelson reached fever pitch, focusing primarily on his holiday in Corfu. The Sunday Times said that the First Secretary, who is standing in for Gordon Brown this week, had "dined with billionaires before retreating to run Britain via his BlackBerry".

On his return on 10 August, Lord Mandelson - who arrived at Gatwick wearing blue suede shoes - chided reporters for making a "ridiculous song and dance" about who was in charge during Mr Brown's break in the Lake District.

Away from the sun-drenched beaches of Corfu, Lord Mandelson considered "plans to overhaul university entry that could see applicants from poor families awarded a two-grade 'head start' over better-off candidates", it was reported. According to The Sunday Times, the First Secretary ordered aides to look at existing schemes operated by some universities to see whether national guidance should be issued to encourage such an approach. However, on 10 August he distanced himself from the story, with a source saying that he "doesn't think the way to widen access is to lower grade requirements".

State schools are often to blame for bright teenagers failing to apply to top universities because of teachers' reluctance to promote "elitism", according to a study. The report, due to be published by the Sutton Trust on 12 August, says that many teachers led pupils to believe that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are "not for the likes of us".

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