The week in higher education

October 1, 2009

The policy of charging lower top-up fees than almost every other university has cost Leeds Metropolitan University £10 million in lost earnings. Speaking on 24 September, Geoff Hitchins, chief executive of Leeds Met, said the flagship "low-charge, high-impact" policy did not make sense. If it had charged the full fee from the outset, rather than setting the figure at £2,000 a year, the university could have spent £5.8 million more on teaching, he said. "Think about what that would have done to our staff-student ratio," he added. The full fee will be charged from autumn 2010.

The owner of one of England's biggest exam boards is to introduce artificial intelligence-based automated marking. The Times Educational Supplement revealed that Pearson, which owns Edexcel, will use computers to assess essays for international English tests. The new system, to be launched this month, will be used in 20 countries, including the UK, to rate applicants' English skills for university admission, it was reported on 25 September. New data from Universities UK showed that tuition-fee income from international students has more than doubled in the past seven years.

Universities face multimillion-pound fines for breaking the Government's cap on student numbers, it has been claimed. According to a report on 26 September, a 10 per cent surge in applications may have pushed universities to recruit up to 22,000 more students than they were supposed to. Universities have been warned that over-recruitment will be punished with fines for every student admitted over the allotted number. It has emerged that during this year's clearing process, 43,500 applicants secured places - far more than the 22,000 predicted.

In a David versus Goliath showdown, a small group of British physicists are taking on Cern in the race to find dark matter. The researchers have built a machine in a mine tunnel in Cleveland to detect the substance, thought to make up 95 per cent of the universe's mass. Their attempt, reported on September, pits them against the multibillion-pound Cern project in Switzerland, which is due to fire up its Large Hadron Collider next month.

The Government's claim of a "significant increase" in people studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects at university is "fiction", according to a report published on 28 September. The study, by the Policy Exchange think-tank, says the Government categorises courses in nutrition, complementary medicine and geography as science, although many universities class them as arts degrees. Anna Fazackerley, head of education at Policy Exchange, said: "The Government is deliberately trying to make the statistics on STEM subjects appear better than they really are. This must stop."

When Lord Mandelson assumed responsibility for higher education, the sector was assured that universities would not be lost in his huge portfolio. Yet in his speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton on 28 September, higher education figured low in his priorities. After devoting his speech to firing up support for a political fightback before the general election, he turned his attention briefly to universities, insisting that, "with Labour in office, there will be no cap on talent in this country". "Britain gains when every person who is capable can get the chance to go to university, get an apprenticeship or a new skill," he said. "But to make this possible in a tough public-spending environment, we all need to contribute - Government, individuals and employers."

There are 237 reasons why women have sex, according to University of Texas at Austin academics. The very precise tally has been drawn from interviews with 1,000 women by Cindy Meston, a clinical psychologist, and David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist. In an interview about their book, Why Women Have Sex, on 28 September, Professor Meston said the question had rarely been asked before, as "people just assumed the answer was obvious: to feel good". Instead, the authors conclude that women's motives are many and varied, "from the altruistic to the borderline evil".

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