The week in higher education

August 27, 2009

Credit: Nick Newman

The A-level results released on 20 August were better than ever, for the th year in a row, with a pass rate of 97.5 per cent and more than one in four grades an A. Commentators were split into two camps - those attacking A levels for getting easier, and those attacking the cynics for raining on young students' parade. Peter Tymms, director of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, warned that "vigilance is needed if we are not to see more grade inflation - history tells us that it is almost inevitable". But Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and former shadow higher education minister, said we should consider the possibility that - like the Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt who lowered the 100-metre world record to 9.58 seconds last week - today's young people may simply be better than their predecessors.

- Geometry, light and a wee bit of magic" are the ingredients required to make a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak, according to a professor who has won funding to develop such a device. Ulf Leonhardt, who holds a chair of theoretical physics at the University of St Andrews, has won funding from the Royal Society's Theo Murphy Blue Skies award, it was reported on 21 August.

- The aptly named Alex Goodenough has won a place at the University of Cambridge after tutoring himself through his A levels. The 17-year-old was refused a place to study at sixth form because he had Asperger's syndrome, it was reported on 21 August, but got into Cambridge to study engineering after attaining three A grades.

- Two Pakistani students arrested during counter-terrorism raids earlier this year have been deported after giving up their fight to stay in the country. The men were among 12 people, including ten Pakistanis on student visas, who were detained in Liverpool and Manchester in April in connection with an alleged bomb plot. None was charged with a criminal offence, but the ten Pakistanis faced deportation over visa irregularities. On 22 August two of the men were deported after dropping their appeals. Two others have already returned to Pakistan voluntarily.

- The news that Lord Mandelson was admitted to hospital for a prostate operation was front-page news on 22 August. The First Secretary, who is responsible for higher education, was said to be faring well. But columnist Richard Littlejohn, writing in the Daily Mail, bemoaned the "polyps'n'all" reporting of the matter.

- The parents of a student at the University of Oxford who was killed in a road accident are suing an insurance company for their late son's lost earnings. Tsz Fok died after being knocked off his bike by a bin lorry in 2007. His parents, who are from Hong Kong, are taking the insurer to court, it emerged on 22 August, claiming that their son was going to support them in their old age.

- John Prescott could be about to "do an Al Gore", after being handed an honorary professorship in climate change. The former Deputy Prime Minister will give his first lecture on global warming next month at Xiamen University in China, which gave him the honour in recognition of his role in negotiating the Kyoto Treaty. Like Mr Gore, the former US vice-president who reinvented himself as an environmental campaigner with his hit documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Mr Prescott is also working on an eco-film, it was reported on 23 August.

- An admissions bungle at the University of Exeter saw nearly 400 sixth-formers offered places, only to have them retracted or the conditions changed. It emerged on 25 August that the pupils, who narrowly missed the A-level grades to secure places automatically, were told that they had been accepted and could not look for other courses through clearing. But about 190 were subsequently told that their offers had been a mistake, while the other 188 were told that the only space available for them was on the university's Cornwall campus, 80 miles from its main Exeter site.

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