The week in higher education

October 22, 2009

It was a confusing week for would-be students. On 15 October, The Independent reported: "Universities finally open their doors to the poor." But just four days later, The Daily Telegraph claimed: "Fewer poor children go to university despite £2 billion drive." The Independent's story was based on an as-yet-unpublished report from the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which reportedly says that the chances of a young person from a disadvantaged background gaining a university place has increased by more than one third in a decade. The Telegraph's story, meanwhile, was based on a report by the University and College Union, which found that in the UK's 20 poorest areas, the number of graduates fell over the past three years, despite the Government's £2 billion drive to widen access to higher education.

On 17 October, a claim to "one of the strangest interviews for Cambridge" was made in the letters pages of The Times by Christine Horricks of Bury St Edmunds. "Having applied in 1967 to Hughes Hall for history ... I entered the principal's study to be met by the small bright-eyed Margaret Wileman. She said: 'Hello, my dear. I see on your application form that you are interested in British steam engines.' (I often used to drive them in Saltburn-by-the-Sea during the 1950s when entering my teens.) She took off her watch, laid it on her desk and said: 'Talk to me for 20 minutes about steam engines.' At the end she told me: 'Right, my dear, you're in.' And that was that. I had the happiest of years."

"A-level history exams have become so watered down that pupils can pass them having studied just a 50-year period of time," The Sunday Telegraph reported on 18 October. Pupils study four topics for A level, and a "pick-and-mix" approach means that they can arrive at university with large gaps in their knowledge, according to Sean Lang, senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University. "In the past they would have quite a good grasp of the whole of the 16th or 19th century - now they might just know the Tudors or Stalin," he said.

Another day, another call in a national newspaper to lift the current cap on student tuition fees. On 20 October, it was the turn of John Holman, director of the government-funded National Science Learning Centre. He was quoted as saying that it was "difficult" to see how "a future of excellence throughout the university system" could be maintained without a financial boost, but added he did not want a "free for all" with no fees ceiling. In its leader, The Independent said it "seems inconceivable" that the Government's fees review would not recommend an increase in fees, but it lamented: "The result of the fees inquiry will not be known until after the general election, which gives our political masters a convenient get-out clause to avoid saying what they will do if in power next year. That is a pity. The public deserves to know the stance of each political party on such an important issue before it casts its vote on election day."

On April Fool's Day 2009, Times Higher Education published a spoof news report saying that the Government was to launch an "official annual university league table using measures such as students' personal feedback on their lecturers via the website Twitter". "Feedback will also be compiled from the popular website, Ratemyprofessors.com," we reported. But this week it appears that truth can be stranger than fiction. The Times reported that under a Conservative government, "students would be able to rate their lecturers on a government-sponsored website designed to give university applicants better information about courses." The Times said that the website would "let students give their views of teaching standards and the quality of feedback on their work", in a style similar to unofficial sites such as Ratemyprofessors.com. It quoted David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, as saying: "Some of the posts can be quite unpleasant and intrusive, but my view is that we need more places for this kind of information in a way that is properly monitored."

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