The Week in Higher Education

August 12, 2010

- David Willetts suffered "humiliation" when he was asked on live television about the government's apparent intent to end free milk for the under-fives on 8 August. The universities and science minister responded that "a whole range of options" was being considered in the review of public spending. He was then informed by the interviewer that Downing Street had just announced that free milk would not be cut. The minister shifted uncomfortably in his seat and gave an awkward, revised version of his previous answer. The Daily Mirror said Mr Willetts had been "humiliated". But Sadiq Khan, Labour's shadow transport secretary, another guest on the show, explained on air that the lack of mobile phone reception in the studio had left Mr Willetts out of the loop. In the circumstances, he added charitably, the minister performed "really well".

- As well as crowing over Mr Willetts' milk mishap, the press greeted his BBC interview as evidence that the government now favours the "graduate tax" proposed by Vince Cable, the business secretary. The Times reported on 9 August that the universities minister had "cleared the way for the levy and headed off a coalition split when he confirmed that the independent review into funding was being encouraged to look into ways of raising more from graduates". Mr Willetts said in the interview: "We do have a preference that graduates ... should make a higher contribution to the benefits of the education they have received." But that vague statement could easily refer to something closer to the current system of post-graduation repayment, rather than to Mr Cable's system of variable tax contributions without fees.

- The internet will soon be more important to higher education than universities themselves, Bill Gates has predicted. Speaking at the Techonomy 2010 Conference, the Microsoft tycoon said that, for higher education, "place-based learning" is old news. "We are trying to take the $200,000 (£125,000) education that is increasingly hard to get ... and provide it to every kid who wants it," he said on 9 August. "Only technology can bring down that figure not to $20,000 but to $2,000. So place-based learning will be five times less important than it is today."

- The former president of the National Union of Students has sacrificed an attractive corporate post in favour of his nascent political career. Last month, shortly after leaving the established Westminster launch pad of the NUS presidency, Wes Streeting was elected as a Labour councillor in the London borough of Redbridge. Days later, he joined PricewaterhouseCoopers' public-sector consultancy team. But as PwC is the external auditor for Redbridge council, Mr Streeting would have been in breach of Audit Commission rules had he remained in both posts. The well-paid job at PwC bit the dust, rather than the more humbly remunerated councillor's post. It seems Mr Streeting is a man on a political mission.

- Estimates by the University and College Union about the level of repayments under a graduate tax were "random" and should be "disregarded", it has been suggested. The UCU warned on 9 August that a levy of between 3 and 7 per cent could result in GPs paying more than £70,000 and teachers almost £50,000. But Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of universities, accused the union of basing its calculations on "random figures". A graduate tax of 1 per cent "would provide sufficient funding for the current fees and fee loans to be set aside," she said.

- The hysterical build-up to A-level results day began on 10 August with several front-page stories warning that top universities are already full. Record numbers of students are being turned away, it was reported, with the likes of Birmingham, Bristol and Edinburgh having filled all their places. No mention was made of the fact that elite universities might well expect to be booked out before clearing. More interesting was the news that the University of Cambridge may have to reject up to 8,000 applicants expected to achieve at least one A* - which nicely tees up the next round of A-level related reports on the evils of grade inflation.

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