The week in higher education

September 1, 2011

• The opportunity for a headline about students living the Hi-de-Hi! life was too much to resist when it emerged that Edge Hill University was scoping out a Pontins holiday camp in search of emergency accommodation for first-year undergraduates. A spokeswoman said on 24 August that "in a year when we have experienced increases in demand for our courses, there are a number of students looking for options off campus". She said that the Pontins camp in nearby Southport was one option being considered. Any students who end up on the site can expect to enjoy what Pontins describes on its website as a "non-stop rollercoaster of entertainment full of energy". How will Edge Hill's lecturers compete?

• Richard Dawkins is probably inured to accusations that he is "breathtakingly arrogant". But in an article for a forthcoming issue of Port magazine, the broadcaster Melvyn Bragg issues a barb that may cause the renowned atheist real pain - comparing him to a priest. Lord Bragg says that in his best-selling book The God Delusion, Professor Dawkins "several times muses with palpable satisfaction on the academic distinction - even superiority - of his atheist friends. I find that disturbing: self-selected elites have done great damage, as we can see in the history of many priesthoods." The article, which was previewed on 25 August, goes on to describe this as "a small complaint" when compared with his other sins. Professor Dawkins may not agree.

• Balancing a ministerial role with that of a constituency MP can be tricky, and the juggling act landed David Willetts in the spotlight on 25 August. The universities minister is reported to have lobbied vice-chancellors at three universities on behalf of candidates who had failed to secure a place. Two of the candidates were constituents of the MP for Havant; the third had attended a college in the constituency. The letter-writing "prompted dismay" at the University of Exeter, one of the institutions involved, according to The Guardian. However, Mr Willetts insisted that he stated explicitly in the letters that he was writing as a constituency MP. "I don't think that my being universities minister should stop me doing the usual things that a constituency MP could do," he said. Sir Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter, said he was regularly lobbied by MPs, and had treated Mr Willetts' letter no differently from other entreaties. The student concerned was not offered a place.

• It is not often that articles in Times Higher Education overlap with the output of those more used to writing about Celebrity Big Brother. But after last week's story on historians' concerns over David Starkey's role as a media pundit, The Daily Telegraph assigned not its education reporter but its showbusiness editor to cover the furore. The decision on 26 August appeared to vindicate the historians' complaint that the media were more interested in Dr Starkey for his "on-screen persona and tendency to make comments that viewers find offensive than for his skills as a historian".

• If David Willetts has his way, universities should soon be springing up like branches of Starbucks, according to an interview in The Times. The universities and science minister told the newspaper on August that it should be possible for someone to "just rent an office block and say you could study here for five key vocational qualifications". He also said his reforms for higher education should not be judged until 2015, claiming that he would be happy if, by then, the student experience had improved and more poor students went to university.

• Three English students have joined the legal challenge to the Scottish government's plans to allow universities north of the border to charge them tuition fees of up to £9,000, even as Scottish and other non-UK European Union students pay nothing. The trio have added their names to the challenge initiated by the lawyer Phil Shiner, who says the legislation discriminates against students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it was reported on 29 August. The development came after the University of Aberdeen announced that it will set fees of £9,000 for students from the rest of the UK in 2012, although the fourth year will be free.

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