The week in higher education

January 21, 2010

Just as night follows day, charges of grade inflation followed the publication of the official statistics on the degrees awarded by universities last year. The figures, released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on 14 January, show that more than 43,000 firsts were awarded in 2008-09 - almost double the number of a decade ago. In total, 14 per cent of all undergraduates obtained a first, up from 13 per cent in 2007-08, while 48 per cent achieved a 2:1 - the same proportion as the year before. Hesa also reported that 1.14 million students started courses in 2008-09, up 7 per cent year on year. Applications are reported to be increasing again this year, prompting a warning from Les Ebdon, chair of Million+, that as many as 200,000 could miss out on places in 2010-11.

Graduates concerned about diminishing job prospects may want to consider prospective opportunities as four-legged footballers, vertical farmers and body part makers. The far-fetched jobs are among a series of future careers mooted in a study commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. A report drawn up by futurologists, titled Shape of Jobs to Come, is part of an ongoing campaign to encourage a better understanding of science, it was reported on 14 January.

Lord Mandelson has slapped down the Russell Group of large research-intensive universities, accusing them of "crying wolf" over the impact of funding cuts. In a stinging rebuke in an interview on 16 January, the First Secretary said the group's claim that the cuts could jeopardise 800 years of higher education were absurd. "They're crying wolf. They're getting their retaliation in first. If there's a change of government this year, a spending axe is going to fall on them." He added: "If they exaggerate now, people will be less likely to listen later on. Also, if they create the impression that they are not capable of eking out the most modest savings, people are going to wonder just how professional they are."

In a move it described as "brazenly elitist", the Conservative Party has launched plans to toughen up access to the teaching profession. David Cameron, the Tory leader, said on 18 January that he would restrict public funding for teacher training to applicants with a 2:2 or higher. It was pointed out that this would have prevented the party's own "maths czar", Carol Vorderman, from obtaining funding, as she graduated with a third in engineering. Meanwhile, the Government has told universities to pay more attention to "contextual information" such as an applicant's background when making offers to students, following a review of social mobility conducted by Alan Milburn last year.

The annual gloom-mongering of a former Cardiff University lecturer fell on 18 January this year, identified by a questionable formula as the most miserable day of 2010. Psychologist Chris Arnall gets press coverage most academics can only dream of with his perennial "Blue Monday" calculation, used this year as PR for Thorntons, which dished out free chocolates to improve the nation's mood. His equation uses seven variables, including weather, debt and failure in New Year's resolutions.

The "one-size-fits-all" approach to university funding is in danger of resulting in a "drift towards the lowest common denominator at the cost of excellence". So says Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University, in an article written for on 19 January, in which he argues for different units of resource for different "types" of university. He calls for three broad groupings of institutions: research-intensive universities; universities focused on economic and social needs; and local, community-college style universities delivering vocational training. Warning that debates about fee levels and the comparability of degrees are missing the point, he says: "A focus on proxy issues is deflecting from the key issue: what is the affordable size and shape of a sustainable sector?"

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