The week in higher education

November 18, 2010

After getting its hands on a "dossier of student misdemeanours" detailing disciplinary action at the University of Cambridge over a five-year period, The Daily Telegraph duly gave over most of page three to the story on 10 November. But despite its efforts to sex them up, the details were largely humdrum. Drunkenness, "fouling of corridors", the occasional fight and a bit of nudity was the best the newspaper could rake up from its Freedom of Information trawl. All rather tame after its year of revelations about the antics of MPs.

Coverage of the joint student and lecturer demonstration in London last week against higher tuition fees focused heavily on the protesters who invaded Conservative Party headquarters. While unquestionably destructive, they were also a tiny minority. A picture of a hooded figure smashing a window appeared on the front page of almost every newspaper on 11 November, yet the crowd behind appears to be a sea of photographers rather than anarchists. This image, as well as a bonfire of placard sticks, the occupation of Millbank Tower and a fire extinguisher thrown from the building's roof, guaranteed the feverish coverage that ensued. In the eyes of many of the 50,000 or so peaceful protesters who marched to defend higher education, it also allowed politicians to duck the issue at hand.

As scrutiny of the Liberal Democrats' position on tuition fees intensifies ahead of a parliamentary vote on the issue, further embarrassing details have emerged. It was reported on 13 November that even as 57 Lib Dem MPs were wooing student voters by signing the National Union of Students' pre-election pledge to oppose any increase in fees, the party was drawing up plans to abandon the policy. A month before Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg vowed to scrap the "dead weight of debt", party strategists drew up a document arguing that, in the event of a hung Parliament, political capital should not be wasted defending the pledge. Danny Alexander, now chief secretary to the Treasury, wrote: "On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest." Nick agreed with Danny.

One way in which the Lib Dems claim to have forced their Tory partners to be "progressive" is by making widening access a prerequisite for charging higher fees. Critics argue that this is a fig leaf, as universities already do what they can to help poorer students. However, it was reported on 15 November that the beneficiaries of the University of Oxford's widening-participation efforts may not all be as disadvantaged as might be assumed. More than a fifth of its outreach events were put on for pupils at independent schools including Eton, Rugby and St Paul's. Oxford said its aim was to encourage applications "regardless of background". Including filthy rich, apparently.

A group of elite universities threatened to "go private" if the government forbade them from raising tuition fees, Vince Cable has claimed. The business secretary said the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the London School of Economics and University College London were among those who might have made such a move had the coalition not proposed a £9,000 fee cap. "If we had not opened up the system...they would have had a strong incentive to (go private)," he said. "Whether we shall head them off, I don't know." Mr Cable's comments, reported on 16 November, contradict the public statements of many elite institutions, which have always denied such claims.

Scientists have reacted angrily to plans to amalgamate the role of director general for science and research in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills - currently held by Adrian Smith - with two other roles. The plans to change the way science and research are represented in BIS would see the appointment of a new director general for science, research, universities and innovation. At a Lords Science and Technology Committee meeting on 16 November, John Beddington, the chief scientific adviser, said the appointee would have an "enormously difficult" job and would need "complete credibility" with all three communities.

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