The Week in Higher Education

July 8, 2010

The man with the future of UK higher education in his hands has also been enlisted to inject a business culture into the heart of government. Lord Browne, the former head of BP, will help appoint business leaders to the board of each government department and beef up the three-yearly reports that hold secretaries of state to account, it was reported on 2 July. He is also at the head of the Independent Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance, which is expected to report this year. Given his experience of dealing with disasters at BP, Lord Browne should be well equipped to cope with criticism of any recommendation to raise tuition fees while juggling his other government role.

One of the UK's most prominent TV dons has given an insight into his pugnacious undergraduate life and debating style. Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University, said in an interview published on 3 July: "I've not punched anyone since Oxford. But in verbal exchanges I believe you should retaliate with double the force of the infringement - 'tit for tat plus' is my philosophy ... I go for it." Attributing this confrontational attitude to his upbringing in Glasgow, he went on to deliver the verbal equivalent of a Glasgow kiss to his detractors, including Alan Bennett, who modelled a cynical teacher on Professor Ferguson in The History Boys.

Universities will be invited by the education secretary to design new A levels in a return to the "traditional" system. Michael Gove wants A levels to become more academically rigorous and plans to model the new system on the Cambridge Pre-U qualification, it was reported on 4 July. "We need to ensure that the knowledge expected of A-level students is such that they can hit the ground running (at university) and they don't need, as some have suggested, four-year courses or catch-up tuition," Mr Gove said. The intent to involve universities echoes a report by Sir Richard Sykes, former rector of Imperial College London, which was commissioned by the Conservatives in opposition.

The government has updated its guidelines on scientific advice, incorporating principles drawn up in the wake of David Nutt's sacking as the government's chief drugs adviser last year. Guidelines on the Use of Scientific and Engineering Advice in Policy Making, published last week by Sir John Beddington, the chief scientific adviser, sets out how policymakers should seek and apply expert advice. The update, which follows a public consultation, is not a direct response to the Nutt affair, but it incorporates the Principles of Scientific Advice that were drafted after Professor Nutt's sacking. It highlights a particular need to explain policy decisions that appear to flout scientific advice.

After a few weeks licking his wounds, Gordon Brown is said to be considering academic posts at a number of world-leading universities. Mr Brown, who was voted out of office in May, could follow in the footsteps of Tony Blair by taking a post at an Ivy League institution, it was suggested on 5 July. Among the institutions said to be vying for his services are Harvard and Yale, as well as the University of Edinburgh, Mr Brown's alma mater. A spokesman for the former prime minister said that the posts were all part-time. "He has been approached by several institutions regarding various things," the spokesman said. "None of these is settled yet."

University-leavers face an intense battle for jobs in the economic downturn, with about 70 fighting for each graduate vacancy. The results of a survey of employers by the Association of Graduate Recruiters were widely reported on 6 July. Last year, there were 48 applications for each vacancy. The survey also showed that nearly 78 per cent of employers are insisting that candidates have at least a 2:1 degree. Carl Gilleard, the association's chief executive, tried to offer depressed graduates some motivation. "Any employment is better than no employment, (even) if it's about flipping burgers or stacking shelves rather than being sat at home feeling sorry for yourself and vegetating."

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