The week in higher education

June 16, 2011




• Higher education is about to enter a strange new world of higher tuition fees and competitive markets, but one comforting certainty remains: Universities UK presidents get knighthoods. Steve Smith was recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours on 11 June after representing the academy in discussions with the government during a tumultuous period of change. Sir Steve told Times Higher Education: "Normally the UUK president gets a knighthood in the summer after they finish, so I was expecting it - in the sense that you ever expect these things - in July next year." The recurring knighthoods are surely just a reflection of consistently high performance, but Eric Thomas, the University of Bristol vice-chancellor and UUK president-elect, could at least try to look surprised when he gets his.

• Detailed educational records are to replace university degree classifications, according to reports. The Higher Education Achievement Report (Hear), which aims to provide in-depth evaluations of students' abilities, will be rolled out nationally from the autumn, it was reported on 11 June. Sir Bob Burgess, the University of Leicester's vice-chancellor and head of a steering group that examined the Hear, said the ultimate aim was to replace the current system of degree classifications. The report, already trialled at some institutions, will "drill down" to students' marks at the modular level, he added.

• Amina Abdallah Arraf al Omari was the glamorous lesbian blogger from Syria held up as a symbol of resistance to a brutal regime. But after garnering global attention and acclaim for her courage, "she" turned out to be a bearded postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh. The "Gay Girl in Damascus" blog set up by "Amina Arraf" actually came from the fertile imagination of Tom MacMaster, it emerged on 13 June. The press had already reported on Amina's suspected arrest and detention by Syrian security forces, prompting social-media campaigns for her release. Suspicions grew after emails sent by her were traced to Edinburgh's server. Mr MacMaster, whose wife is studying for a PhD in Syrian development at the University of St Andrews, apologised for his dishonesty.

• Universities may already be running courses to train academics to become better teachers, but evidence suggests that "not everyone is taking them seriously", according to the head of the Higher Education Academy. In a lecture at the University of Bournemouth on 13 June, Craig Mahoney said that people teaching students "need to be properly prepared, just as nurses and engineers, airline pilots and psychologists need to be qualified...The people I have met during my academic career who have undertaken a qualification to teach in higher education have almost always been better teachers." He warned that international students - a key source of income for the sector - have concerns about teaching standards in the UK.

• The government is to take £2.4 billion out of the UK economy over four years through its drive to cut overseas-student numbers. The Home Office's impact assessment for the tightening of visa rules shows a "best estimate" that the policy will cost £3.5 billion over four years, against £1.1 billion in benefits. The losses include £170 million in tuition fees, it was reported on 14 June, but that figure is based on the assumption that 80 per cent of lost overseas students will be replaced by home and European Union students.

• The general secretary of the University and College Union has been accused of "childish mud-slinging" by a senior union figure. Sally Hunt came under fire after criticising the Socialist Workers Party for its alleged attempts to influence the union via the UCU Left group. Sean Vernell, a further education member of the UCU's national executive committee, said the accusations amounted to "childish mud-slinging", and claimed on 14 June that Ms Hunt was agitating because she "desperately" wants to be re-elected. Times Higher Education reported earlier this month on her plans to stand for re-election, a process that will begin in the autumn.

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