The week in higher education

August 11, 2011

• David Willetts, the universities minister, is reputed to have two brains - but will his higher education reforms result in fewer graduates having two kidneys? An academic has suggested that it is time to consider a market for organ donation, it was reported on 3 August, proposing that the price of a kidney could be close to the £,000 debts many students will accumulate for a three-year course from 2012. Writing on the British Medical Journal website, Sue Rabbitt Roff, a research Fellow in medical sociology at the University of Dundee, said that "if the standard payment were...£28,000, it would be an incentive for those who wanted to do a kind deed and make enough money to, for instance, pay off university loans".

• The government's overhaul of higher education, with its aim of chipping away at any monopoly enjoyed by large universities, took two steps forward last week. First the coalition unveiled plans to allow small specialist colleges to apply for university status if they have more than 1,000 higher education students. The move was welcomed by Peter Lutzeier, principal of Newman University College, Birmingham, who said the caps on student numbers made it "almost impossible" for many small institutions to achieve the current 4,000 threshold. In a second development on 5 August, several further education colleges were allowed to offer their own foundation degrees, in what was hailed as a landmark step towards those institutions obtaining full degree-awarding powers.

• "How whale watching can help you get to university" was the Daily Mail's gleefully disparaging take on the news that gap-year students are to be awarded Universities and Colleges Admissions Service points "for adventures abroad". A Certificate of Personal Effectiveness will be worth 70 Ucas points, it was reported on 6 August, the equivalent of an A grade at AS level. The award is to be accredited by Asdan, and was described by Alison Wolf, who led a government review of education qualifications, as "crazy". She added: "There is a danger that people will believe that universities will treat all points as equal and a terrible danger that the most vulnerable will be misled."

• The A-level scaremongering began in earnest this week, with The Sunday Times reporting on the stranglehold that privately schooled candidates have on A* "super grades". In mathematics, more than 4,000 A* grades were awarded to private school pupils last year, compared with fewer than 3,500 for the whole state sector. This was despite the fact that just 15 per cent of A-level candidates were privately educated. The newspaper said on 7 August that the statistics "suggest independent schools are tightening their grip on elite universities".

• In a clash of titanic proportions, the outspoken former head of the Royal Institution, Baroness Greenfield, has incurred the ire of a University of Oxford colleague and self-styled scourge of the misrepresentation of science. Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology, wrote an open letter to Baroness Greenfield, who is professor of pharmacology, taking issue with a recent article in which she suggested links between increases in internet usage and the rise in autism. "Your speculations have wandered on to my turf and it's starting to get irritating," writes Professor Bishop, going on to call the remarks "illogical garbage". Responding on 7 August, Baroness Greenfield said: "I have a lot of respect for (her) work. However, it's not really for Dorothy to comment on how I run my career."

"Who needs a degree?" asked Metro on 9 August, reporting that the wealth of self-made "skillionaires" who started their careers with apprenticeships has soared. According to the City & Guilds Vocational Rich List 2011, topped by the industrialist Sir Anthony Bamford (worth £2.15 billion), the collective fortunes of the top 100 in Britain have risen by £1 billion in the past three years to £17.6 billion. Also high on the list is the inventor Sir James Dyson (£1.4 billion), who recently set up a £1 million scholarship scheme to help university students in design and engineering. Metro said the list showed that the likes of Sir James and Sir Anthony "didn't go to uni, but earned their fortunes on merit".

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