The Week in Higher Education

December 2, 2010

Fresh from alienating thousands of students and schoolchildren with its plans for higher tuition fees, the coalition government now finds itself with another foe: Miss England. Jessica Linley, who is taking a year out from law studies at the University of Nottingham to fulfil her Miss England duties, was widely quoted on 24 November. "Everyone should be entitled to an education, but too few people will be able to afford one at £9,000 a year," she said. "These sweeping austerity measures are unacceptable."

Vice-chancellors should be the ones taking to the streets in opposition to the Browne Review, believes one of their number. Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, said on 25 November that although he backed Lord Browne's proposals to shift the balance of university funding to graduates, plans for a super-quango to oversee the sector would make "monsters" of bureaucracies. "As the market in higher education widens, so Browne wants to toughen its central direction," Professor Kealey said, in a line unlikely to bring many out in protest.

Students in England may be raging against the prospect of higher tuition fees, but in the US increasing numbers are starting to view the UK as a "cheap" place to study. The Wall Street Journal said on 26 November that although it is "almost heresy to say it" in England, the UK "remains a 'cheap' place to get an education". Although studying at a leading UK university may cost a US citizen about $20,000 (£12,800), top-rated institutions in the US cost more like $40,000, the newspaper said. "Sure, there's plane tickets, time zones, foul weather and the cultural labyrinth (to endure). However, there's also approximately $80,000 or more to be saved by simply shipping junior off to this island nation."

Comedian Frank Skinner paid tribute to the transformative power of higher education in a newspaper column on 26 November. The graduate of Birmingham Polytechnic (now Birmingham City University) and the University of Warwick said: "It didn't matter that I spent the first 20-odd years of my life living in a council house and was expelled from school, or that I got my A levels at a college of further education. A few weeks into the English degree course...I felt my brain begin to stir, my confidence began to blossom and a whole new life began to unfold. Higher education unchained me." A rather more nuanced appreciation of higher education's value than that managed by the Browne Review, the review's critics might argue.

Reinforcing higher education's position atop the news agenda, high-profile academics opened another front of opposition to the government on fees and funding. A group dominated by Oxbridge and University College London scholars, and also including Sussex's Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto, called for a "public commission of inquiry on the future of higher education" in an open letter on 29 November. The signatories, who also include Princeton historian Linda Colley and Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, say the government's case that the reforms would reduce the deficit has been undermined, and that the coalition has "a weak political mandate for change". The inquiry should include "wide consultations with politicians, academics, students, business leaders and others to examine the function and funding of higher education from first principles," they say.

The president of the National Union of Students has apologised for being "spineless" in his lack of public support for university occupations and student protests. Aaron Porter was criticised for not attending last week's national day of action, it was reported on 29 November, and for failing to back the student occupations still taking place on campuses across the country. At the University College London occupation, Mr Porter said: "For too long, the NUS has perhaps been too cautious and too spineless about being committed to supporting student activism...I just want to apologise for my dithering in the past few days." Showing the instincts one would expect from a budding politician, Mr Porter's mea culpa came after some students began to call for his resignation.

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