The Week in Higher Education

January 6, 2011




The festive period was not kind to the man with responsibility for England's universities. Having been stung by undercover reporters, Vince Cable, the business secretary, may have regretted his pre-recorded appearance on a Christmas edition of Strictly Come Dancing. Journalists lined up to give him a kicking. A columnist for The Independent described Mr Cable as a "clever twit" and wondered if he "might have done better to resign with honour over the trebling of tuition fees". Lord Mandelson, the previous business secretary, had also been tipped to appear on Strictly - and could have formed a formidable duo with Mr Cable. Many would argue that the pair, who between them commissioned the Browne Review and steered it through the Commons, have led higher education a merry dance.

After a tough year for higher education, an annual "smug list" compiled by The Independent featured mercifully few academics or vice-chancellors. However, there were a couple of familiar faces among those judged to have spent 2010 feeling too self-satisfied. In 12th place was Richard Dawkins, accused of failing to understand that "there's a point where the certainties of his own position shade into self-righteousness". Also on the list was historian David Starkey, in 44th place. "Just when you think Starkey can't be that bad, he sets a new standard for TV rudeness, not least to women," the newspaper said on 26 December.

The argument that the higher tuition fees to be charged from 2012 will not be paid upfront but via graduate contributions appears not to have washed with middle-class parents. It was reported on December that independent schools are bracing for the impact of the fees cap rising to £9,000 a year, with some raising concerns that families may forgo private schooling to save for university. The Times quoted one headmistress as saying that "parents who have scrimped and saved to send their children to private school will be most affected by the trebling of fees". Not the children of the working class, who may be put off university altogether, then?

According to Conservative former Cabinet minister John Redwood, Liberal Democrat MPs are trying to claim credit for the "nice things" the coalition government is doing. The former Wales secretary, now MP for Wokingham, made the claim on December, adding that a misleading "storyline" had developed about how the coalition operates. Absent from his remarks was any reference to the battering taken by the Lib Dems over the tuition fee hike. Drawing attention to the way in which the Tories have remained below the radar while their coalition partners took the heat might have been more than his job was worth.

After being lauded by scientists for protecting the research budget from cuts, Adrian Smith, director-general for knowledge and innovation at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was knighted in the New Year Honours. Other higher education luminaries on the list published on 31 January include Tim Wilson, the recently retired vice-chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, and Graham Henderson, vice-chancellor of the University of Teesside.

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Perennial warnings of grade inflation came early this year when The Sunday Telegraph pre-empted the annual publication of data on degree awards with a Freedom of Information investigation on the topic. It found that the universities awarding the highest proportions of firsts or 2:1s last year were Exeter (82 per cent, compared with 29 per cent in 1970) and St Andrews (82 per cent, compared with 25 per cent). It also said that Northampton had recorded a sevenfold increase in first-class honours since 1997, while firsts at Sunderland had quadrupled over the period. Meanwhile, it was reported on 2 January that David Willetts, the universities and science minister, intends to force institutions to reveal the A-level subjects taken by successful applicants to divine the "soft" subjects they "blacklist". The move is part of Mr Willetts' plan to provide better information for university applicants.

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