The Week in Higher Education

November 25, 2010

More than 200,000 candidates missed out on a place at university this year. However, figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service also show successful applicants from the poorest fifth of the population rose by 2.3 per cent to just over 30,000. The news was applauded on 17 November, but there were warnings that the progress could be reversed if the government scraps Aimhigher, a programme designed to get working-class teenagers into university.

David Cameron's "nudge guru" has told a Lords inquiry that the way to stop students drinking and having sex is to debunk myths pedalled by their peers. David Halpern, head of the Cabinet Office's behavioural insight team, is looking at how people can be persuaded to change their behaviour via "nudge theory" - making it easier for them to make better choices, it was reported on 18 November. "An example is alcohol consumption in students, where most appear to overestimate how much others drink and overestimate how much sex other students have," he said. Meanwhile, in a poll for a new TV show, The Freshers, one in three University of Oxford students questioned said they vomited or urinated in the street at least once a week, while three-quarters said they had sex "whenever they had the chance". A likely story.

With his days taken up by bank bashing and thrashing out the future of higher education, Vince Cable probably hasn't had much time to practise his two-step. So it came as some surprise when the ballroom-loving business secretary announced on 18 November that he would be appearing on Strictly Come Dancing this Christmas. No doubt Mr Cable hopes to follow in the footsteps of celebrities who have added lustre to their fading popularity by appearing on the BBC show. But after a bruising six months in government, and following fierce criticism of his handling of higher education, are his days as a housewives' favourite behind him?

When is a promise not a promise? When it is a pre-election pledge, apparently. With tortuous logic, Vince Cable claimed on 21 November that he and his fellow Lib Dem MPs had not gone back on their word by proposing higher tuition fees. Instead, they had shown bad "political judgement", argued the business secretary, who was one of 57 MPs to sign a pledge vowing to oppose tuition fees. "We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, and we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's a coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour," he said. Let's hope Mr Cable proves more sure-footed on the Strictly dance floor.

Around 300 academics have put their names to a letter praising the "magnificent" demonstration by students in London earlier this month. In an open letter, the scholars from 76 universities also backed a walkout by schoolchildren and sixth-formers that was due to take place on 24 November. They said they understood the "anger of students" and would "fight alongside" them. "We are utterly opposed to the destruction of broad-based critical education and its replacement by education for the market that is enshrined in the Browne Report. We are defending not just our jobs, but the values which brought us into higher education, reflecting the wider significance of education to society," they said.

Murmurings among vice-chancellors that the higher education sector has failed to stand up to huge cuts to teaching grants appear to have been picked up in Westminster. John Denham, the shadow business secretary, told Times Higher Education that institutions had too easily given the impression that fees "were the only game in town" and that there was "no alternative" to an 80 per cent reduction in teaching funding. Speaking before a debate in London on 25 November on the government's proposed reforms to higher education, Mr Denham said there needed to be a stronger defence of the idea of universities as institutions that existed for the general public good.

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