The Week in Higher Education

April 7, 2011

A student at the University of Southern California has been forced to go to ground after pictures of him enjoying high-rise extracurricular activities went viral. It was reported on 31 March that the man engaged in "prolonged activity" with an unidentified woman atop USC's 12-storey Waite Phillips Hall. The couple are reported to have "cavorted in a variety of sexual positions" in full view of a fundraising event arranged by a USC sorority in the quad below. A spokesman for the Interfraternity Council at USC said the student, a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, had perpetuated "negative stereotypes" about so-called frat boys. No mention was made of how the spectacle affected the generosity of those at the event.

David Willetts was in Mexico last week as part of a trade delegation, but that did not stop the universities and science minister hogging headlines at home. "'Two Brains' violates Trade Descriptions Act" was the uncharitable line taken by Simon Heffer in a comment piece in The Daily Telegraph on 2 April. The columnist was incensed by Mr Willetts' "deranged" suggestion that more working-class children should be allowed into universities because the exam results of middle-class pupils were "flattered" by good teaching. "Willetts has had a long career of changing sides within the Tory party to advance his ambition and it hasn't done him any good, in that he still sits outside the Cabinet after 20 years of grovelling," Mr Heffer writes. "He clearly now thinks that being a self-hating member of the middle the way to reach the top in (David Cameron's) coalition." With friends like the Torygraph, who needs enemies?

Having invited howls of rage from the guardians of the middle classes, Mr Willetts drew yet more heat by suggesting that feminism was probably the "single biggest factor" for the lack of social mobility in the UK. Speaking on 2 April ahead of the launch of the government's social mobility strategy this week, he said: "It is not a bad thing that women had these opportunities. But it widened the gap in household incomes, because you suddenly had two-earner couples, both of whom were well educated, compared with often workless households where nobody was educated." The Trades Union Congress accused him of "Neanderthal" attitudes, while Mr Willetts blamed the media for unfairly depicting him as a "crusty old figure". A Liberal Democrat source told the Financial Times: "I'm sure David was just talking in an academic way. But he has to understand that this sort of stuff is politically toxic."

If Mr Willetts was finding it difficult to get away from it all in Mexico, then Nick Clegg, who travelled with him, found it even harder. Despite being 6,000 miles away, the deputy prime minister found himself in a familiar position: being harangued by a student over the decision to treble the tuition fee cap in England. In a question-and-answer session in Mexico City, Jesus Romo, an 18-year-old student, told Mr Clegg that he wanted to study in the UK next year but now had misgivings. "Given that your government seems to be saying that you cannot afford to educate your own population, do you really think it is going to be appropriate for us Mexicans to be taking up places in your universities?" he said in comments reported on 2 April. Mr Clegg said the question was "not a particularly objective one".

Another week brought another trickle of tuition fee announcements, the most unusual being from the University of Derby. The institution struck away from the crowd by eschewing the now-familiar £9,000 flat fee with waivers for poor students, taking instead a variable approach. However, it also risked being labelled the first to ape a sofa warehouse, offering courses at rates including £6,995 for classroom-based courses, £7,495 for "resource-intensive" courses and £7,995 for "specialist" courses. When students are taking on tens of thousands of pounds in debt, one wonders what difference a fiver will make - £8,999.99 anyone?

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