The week in higher education

April 21, 2011

David Willetts has supposedly transformed from true blue to scourge of the middle classes in recent months, and changes to student support arrangements unveiled on 14 April sparked renewed fury from the right-wing press. "Earn £50,000? Your family will suffer most from the fees squeeze" was the Daily Mail's take on the story. It quoted the universities minister as saying that a "strange kink" in the system meant students from households with an income of between £47,500 and £52,500 will be eligible for less support from 2012 than their counterparts under the current system. John Denham, the shadow business secretary, was quick to pick up the Mail's theme. "David Willetts should be clear why the government is again hitting middle-income earners," he said.

With his middle-class credentials under attack, Mr Willetts has turned his hand to something beloved of many Middle Englanders - property developing. It was reported on 14 April that the universities minister had ruffled feathers in Havant with plans to demolish a "quaint" 17th-century house next to his constituency home. However, Mr Willetts insisted that the property - which he pointed out he and his wife had bought "with our own money" - was structurally unsound. But it won't be a case of two homes for "Two Brains" when the property is rebuilt. Instead, a local newspaper reported that Mr Willetts was planning to let the house out, with an estate agent estimating that the rental income would be about £750 a month. Coincidentally - or not - that adds up to £9,000 a year. A nest egg to help pay his children's way through university, perhaps?

US higher education is blighted by a "very long tail of really bad institutions that are taking people's money for degrees that don't give any advantage at all to students", according to the head of Australia's quality watchdog. Denise Bradley, interim chair of Australia's Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, said there was a heated debate in Australia about the merits of concentrating resources on an elite group of universities at the expense of the whole system. Speaking on 14 April, she said the Australian government was committed to developing a "world-class system" rather than a small number of "world-class universities". "We have to be careful. We don't want to have an American system, with a very long tail of really bad institutions ... We really care about that in Australia," she said.

The perennial hand-wringing over loutish behaviour among young Britons abroad began early this year, with a rash of stories about students attending a sports festival in the Spanish town of Salou. "Sodom, Gomorrah and Salou", was The Telegraph's low-key take on the festival, which is reportedly being attended by 5,000 British students. Despite the screaming headline and associated snaps of barely dressed students downing dodgy-looking drinks, the paper's correspondent could not quite bring himself to damn them for having fun. "Perhaps it's time to reappraise our jealous student bashing," he said on 16 April. "Sure they're revolting, drunken, badly behaved and subsidised. But so was our Prime Minister."

With higher education firmly in the public consciousness, a number of TV and literary satires have attempted to piggyback on the renewed interest in academia. But Man Booker-shortlisted novelist Philip Hensher has landed himself in hot water at the University of Exeter, where he teaches creative writing. Academics at the institution are said to be annoyed at the "very unflattering portrait" he paints of university life in his new book, King of the Badgers. One of his colleagues, speaking anonymously, said the novel had gone down like "a sack of worms" at Exeter. But Dr Hensher said his disgruntled peers had jumped to the wrong conclusions. "I don't think my novel contains a portrayal of the university I teach at, or anyone who works there," he told The Guardian on 18 April. Helen Taylor, university arts and culture development Fellow at Exeter, said it was easy to parody a university. "We all take ourselves terribly seriously and so we do look absurd," she said.

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