The week in higher education

March 31, 2011




Coverage of the University and College Union's strike action struggled to judge the numbers involved, or its impact. The Daily Mirror said on 24 March that institutions "will be crippled...as tens of thousands of lecturers walk out in a row over cuts to pay and pensions". The BBC website, meanwhile, reported that participants in the UCU's "week of discontent were enjoying a glorious summery day today as a gaggle of lecturers gathered around the entrance to the School of African and Oriental Studies (sic) in London". Some students at Soas and University College London held occupations in support of the strike. But Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee said on 25 March that: "University teachers striking against students this week looked utterly self-defeating."

"Degrees in greed" was the Daily Mail's take on the Times Higher Education survey of vice-chancellors' pay. THE found the average rise in salaries was 0.6 per cent in 2009-10. The Mail homed in on Patricia Broadfoot, former vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire. "The head of a former technical college earned £1 million in four years before taking early retirement while her institution spiralled into debt," it said on 25 March. The newspaper's leader called her "the head of a technical college". The £78,000 relocation expenses paid by the University of Oxford to former vice-chancellor John Hood seemed less rage-inducing than Gloucestershire's institutional pedigree.

In a curious press release issued on 25 March, the University of Birmingham revealed that it will charge maximum fees. The communique mentions the university's "inspirational student experience", its £600 million investment in "a wide range of transformational projects", and its future "progressive and targeted financial aid package". News of "a fee of £9,000 per annum" comes in the final sentence. The "£9,000" is word number 512 of 524, buried so deep you need a miner's lamp and a canary to reach it. David Eastwood, Birmingham's vice-chancellor, was a member of the Browne Review, which paved the way to higher fees. Surely he did not encourage his press officers in this coy approach?

Suggestions that the Arts and Humanities Research Council had been coerced into funding research related to David Cameron's "Big Society" were furiously denied on 28 March. The Observer claimed that the relative protection afforded to the AHRC's budget had been the result of a "deal", whereby it had agreed to spend a "significant" amount of funding on research linked to the topic. In a statement, the council says: "If there is evidence to demonstrate these allegations...then it should be revealed. But there is no such evidence because it did not happen."

Criticism of the government's fees and funding settlement is becoming a staple of the national press. It was reported on 28 March that figures from the House of Commons Library state that average fees of £8,900 will cost the government an extra £1.23 billion over four years, on top of the outlay for their predicted average of £7,500. A Guardian leader warned of "a hole in the books", while a Times leader said grouping around the maximum showed that "if the government has the right plan in principle, it is starting to look very wrong in practice".

A leading Chinese university is planning to screen students to identify those with "radical thoughts", it was reported on 28 March. Administrators at Peking University said their aim was to help students with problems, not quash independence. Zha Jing, deputy director of the office of student affairs, said: "We've noticed some students having radical thoughts and encountering difficulties...they cannot get on well with roommates, cannot handle love setbacks and cannot adapt to life after graduation." Asked for an example, he said: "Some students criticised the university just because the food price in the canteen was raised by 2 jiao (2p)."

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