The week in higher education

August 25, 2011

• Another year brought another improvement in the A-level pass rate, which reached 97.8 per cent, up from 97.6 per cent in 2010. Just as predictable was the flood of advice that followed on what young people should do if they failed to achieve the grades they needed for a university place. However, one piece of advice, delivered on Twitter by comedian-turned-movie-star Russell Brand, struck a different note from that offered by most newspaper columnists. In a tweet on 18 August, the former heroin addict who failed to finish school said: "British youths! Good luck with your A levels, but don't take it too seriously. I've got none and still married a pop star."

• The columnist, writer and TV presenter Charlie Brooker took a similar line in The Guardian, revealing that he too had succeeded in life despite failing to get the A-level grades demanded by his university. "My despair was short-lived, because I somehow managed to squeak on to the course I'd chosen regardless," he said. Despite this reprieve, he did not graduate, leaving with "shit-all in the way of qualifications". But he said he was "lucky enough to work in a field in which a lack of certificates (and talent) hasn't been a hindrance". His advice for those who missed the mark on 18 August. "Your grades are not your destiny...and no one ever checks up on them anyway - so if in doubt, lie about your qualifications. It may be dishonest, but it's also £9,000 cheaper than any university course."

• While most of the A-levels coverage focused on the competition for university places, the news that science and mathematics are enjoying a resurgence also caught the media's attention. There were big rises in the number of candidates taking maths, further maths, biology, chemistry and physics, and a fall in entries in modern languages and geography. In an unlikely union, the Daily Mail and The Guardian both billed this as "the Brian Cox effect", crediting the University of Manchester professor and TV presenter for injecting a "dose of glamour" into physics and "making science sexy". The Mail said on 19 August that more students were also choosing traditional subjects in the belief that they would serve them better in a depressed job market.

• Scientists researching chronic fatigue syndrome - also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis, or ME - are being targeted by activists who are now as dangerous as animal rights extremists, it has been claimed. The militants, who object to any suggestion that the illness has psychological causes, have turned up at lectures with knives, punched scientists in the street and issued death threats, it was reported on 21 August. They are also said to have bombarded researchers with Freedom of Information requests, made countless complaints to university ethics committees, and falsely alleged that scientists pursuing work in the subject are in the pay of drug and insurance companies. Myra McClure, head of infectious diseases at Imperial College London, told The Observer: "I published a study which these extremists did not like and was subjected to a staggering volley of horrible abuse. One man wrote he was having pleasure imagining that he was watching me drown. He sent that every day for months."

• The news that a lawyer was using the Human Rights Act to challenge legislation would usually send the Daily Mail's blood pressure shooting through the roof. But Phil Shiner's plan to test the Scottish fee regime - which he claims will discriminate against students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland by charging them up to £9,000 a year while Scottish students and those from other European Union countries pay nothing - won the newspaper's firm support. "As regular readers will be aware, this paper is no enthusiast for the Human Rights Act or the lawyers who exploit it, usually at the expense of common sense," the Mail said on 23 August. "But where justice and the unity of the kingdom are under threat, we welcome any ally in the fight to uphold them." It added that the Scottish government's plans were "nakedly unfair".

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