The week in higher education

May 19, 2011

Fabian ideals of social improvement, lots of overseas students and possibly the first sub-£9,000 tuition fee in the Russell Group: the London School of Economics has always been a place of innovation. The LSE's academic board voted in favour of £8,000 fees on 11 May, a move likely to have sent the institution's finance officers into a cold sweat. After the knife-edge vote, the management is expected to ensure that potential price tags of both £9,000 and £8,000 are considered when the LSE's council makes the final decision. The outcome will be of close concern to the next LSE director. Former Labour minister Lord Adonis has ruled himself out of the reckoning, while LSE academic heavyweights Julian Le Grand and Lord Stern are contenders, it was reported on 12 May.

These are nervous times for support staff at London Metropolitan University and De Montfort University as their heads are first on the block after the institutions' fees announcements. London Met said 86 support-staff and senior administration jobs would go, while De Montfort put the number of support-staff jobs at risk at 193. Announcing London Met's cuts in an email on 12 May, Paul Bowler, the deputy chief executive, acknowledged that "this communication may be upsetting for some staff". An accurate prediction - some were particularly upset by his talk of "deleting" posts.

David Cameron's government continues to anger some traditional Tories, now with its higher education policies. Charles Moore lamented in his Daily Telegraph column that middle-class Conservatives now find "the government is even more obsessed with 'fair' access than Gordon Brown was. Parents who have educated their children privately are now being told that they must be punished for the results of the rotten state schooling from which they paid to escape." And with university tuition fees clustering around £9,000, it is "as if the Days Inn in Middlesbrough were to charge the same as the Ritz", he wrote on 14 May. One in the eye for those who imagined that universities were about education not status - and for Middlesbrough's Teesside University.

Contrary to earlier reports that painted the Office for Fair Access as a toothless watchdog with a set of powers present only in David Willetts' imagination, it is now being portrayed as a crack unit facing down vice-chancellors. About one-third of universities have failed to satisfy Offa's widening-access requirements in their draft access agreements and must resubmit if they wish to charge fees above £6,000, according to a report on 14 May. Ministers, dismayed by the numbers seeking to charge close to £9,000, are said to be "delighted" by the high volume of rejections. The key test will come on 11 July, when Offa will publish a final list of institutions that will be allowed to charge more than £6,000 in 2012.

Controls on student numbers will be scrapped for those with the best examination grades, according to a report on 16 May. Under plans reportedly to be included in the government's forthcoming White Paper, universities will be allowed to recruit as many home and European Union students as they wish if the applicants have grades of at least AAB at A level. The move will put pressure on institutions with lower entry standards due to a resultant drop in core student numbers, the report suggested. The number of centrally allocated undergraduate places would fall under the plan, and universities would not be allowed to make them up by admitting students with lower grades.

The university guide season has begun, with the spotlight falling on some low-ranked institutions planning to charge high fees. The Guardian published its University Guide on 17 May. There were few surprises at the top: the universities of Cambridge and Oxford took the first two spots and four London institutions made the top 10. But the newspaper noted: "Salford, Liverpool John Moores, Manchester Metropolitan and the University of East London - all of which rank in the bottom 20 - want to charge £9,000 for at least some of their courses." London Metropolitan University, in last place, plans to charge a range of fees up to £9,000.

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