The week in higher education

June 10, 2010

Cuts to higher-education funding should be blamed not on the failures of the banks but on the burden of baby-boomers' pensions, an economist has said. Writing in The Times on 2 June, Anatole Kaletsky said that David Willetts, the universities and science minister, had got it right in his book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children's Future - And How They Can Give it Back (2010). Some 86 per cent of the long-term fiscal pressure on Western nations is caused by the growth of public spending on health and pensions, Mr Kaletsky said, adding that young people "must vote for cuts" in these areas to preserve spending on other priorities. "Schools and universities are more important for a society's future than pensions, yet every democracy in the world has made the opposite judgement," he said. "I look forward to Oxford and Cambridge being turned into luxury old people's homes."

Historian Niall Ferguson did little to endear himself to colleagues in the field of ancient history when he suggested that the subject could be taught in primary school, on the grounds that ancient civilisations were simpler and thus easier for younger children to understand. The Guardian, reporting from the Hay Festival on 5 June, said the comments had "gone down like the proverbial knackered lift". The newspaper quoted Richard Miles, college lecturer in ancient and early medieval history at the University of Cambridge, as saying: "You could only think the ancient world was simple if you knew bugger all about ancient history."

The new A* grade for A levels introduced this summer "will boost the chances of private-school students going to university", The Independent reported on 5 June. Rudolf Eliott Lockhart, head of research at the Independent Schools Council, compiled figures from examination boards that showed that if the system had been in place for last year's exams, 36.5 per cent of all A* grades would have gone to privately educated pupils, who make up 7 per cent of A-level student numbers. The new grade will be awarded to students who score more than 90 per cent in their exams.

Financial constraints have forced the University of St Andrews to defer a £46 million library refurbishment in favour of a modest £7 million makeover. The Scotsman reported on 5 June that the news was "greeted with fury by some students, a number of whom had to sit on the floor to study for their final-year exams last month due to lack of desk space". The revelation came just one week after Louise Richardson, the institution's principal, was criticised for a £4 million refurbishment of her official residence.

The government is to scrap Labour's academic diplomas for 16- to 19-year-olds, it was announced on 8 June. Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said development of the diplomas in science, humanities and languages, due to be introduced from September 2011, would cease immediately. This meant instant savings of about £1.77 million, plus further savings in the future, he said.

Middlesex University's philosophy research centre looked set to be "transferred" to Kingston University as Times Higher Education went to press. The Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) was threatened with closure under controversial plans, but it looked likely to move, along with its four senior staff and its MA and PhD students, relaunching at Kingston in September. The football-style transfer is thought to have been negotiated between Kingston management and Middlesex philosophy staff. A statement from the two universities said: "Middlesex and Kingston universities have been in discussions over the transfer of postgraduate philosophy programmes and research, plus associated staff from Middlesex to Kingston. Those discussions are at an advanced stage and neither institution is able to comment further at this point." Peter Osborne, director of the CRMEP, said: "It demonstrates it is not impossible to have research-based philosophy in a post-92 institution." He argued that institutions at the forefront of widening participation must offer subjects such as philosophy, as it ensures those disciplines are open to students from beyond "one particular social class".

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