The week in higher education

January 13, 2011




The number of university applicants has increased by 2.5 per cent on last year, according to figures published by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. A total of 344,064 people had applied by 20 December for courses in 2011-12, the final year before the tuition-fee cap is raised to £9,000 a year. It was reported on 5 January that if the increase continues at its current rate, about 705,000 people will apply, up from 688,000 last year, which was itself a record.

The unintended "impact" of some research has been highlighted by an internationally renowned pharmacologist, who said he was "haunted" by the knowledge that his work was linked to drug deaths caused by "legal highs". David Nichols, distinguished chair in pharmacology at Purdue University, Indiana, has spent nearly 40 years investigating the potential of psychedelic drugs in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. However, in an article in Nature, reported on 6 January, he gives a detailed outline of the trail from his publications to the arrival of new street drugs. "I have published information that ultimately led to human death," he said, adding that "one cannot know where research ultimately will lead".

He may be public enemy number one among students, but Nick Clegg has done his best to befriend academics by giving a tub-thumping speech about plans to reform England's libel laws. The deputy prime minister said on 7 January that the government acknowledged that the laws were having a "chilling effect" on scientific debate, adding that he wanted to turn them "from an international laughing stock into an international blueprint". Recent examples highlighting how the laws can curtail academic freedom include the case of Simon Singh, the science writer who was sued for saying that chiropractors promoted some "bogus" treatments. A draft defamation bill is due out in the spring.

The government's university access tsar, Simon Hughes, has ramped up the rhetoric on tuition-fee levels, warning that the government will have "failed" if large numbers of universities set fees above the lower cap of £6,000 a year. Addressing fears that vice-chancellors are planning to aim closer to £9,000 a year despite the access agreements this would entail, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader insisted on 7 January that "unless government fails, the exception will be more than £6,000 ... it's a much more manageable increase". Mr Hughes also said that universities had "failed miserably" to reflect society in their student bodies, suggesting that stricter limits could be imposed on their private school intake.

There was a blast from the past on 10 January when the University of Plymouth announced it had appointed Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister, as deputy vice-chancellor. The former Labour MP for Harlow, who lost his seat at last year's general election, will be responsible for the student experience and internationalisation at the university. Mr Rammell followed his three years as higher education minister with a stint at the Ministry of Defence; given the academy's embattled status, one wonders which experience will prove more valuable in his new role.

Hundreds of thousands of students are likely to be turned away from California State University and the state's community colleges next year, while the University of California may have to raise tuition fees once again despite sharp previous hikes. The grim warnings were made on 11 January after Jerry Brown, California's governor, announced plans to cut $500 million (£322 million) each from the budget of UC and CSU, and an additional $400 million from the community colleges. The retrenchment, meant to address the state's $25 billion budget gap, assumes that voters will agree to extend several taxes that raise $10 billion a year. If not, the cuts could go deeper still. Mark G. Yudof, UC's president, writes: "In the budget...the collective tuition payments made by UC students for the first time in history would exceed what the state contributes...The crossing of this threshold should be profoundly disturbing to all Californians."

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