The week in higher education

January 19, 2012

• The University and College Union's general secretary is a pensions "defeatist" ignoring the case for another "magnificent strike", according to some on the union's Left. Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, told members last week that the union would hold a ballot on the government's "improved" final offer on the public Teachers' Pension Scheme, which covers academics in post-1992 universities. A group of UCU NEC members, many from the UCU Left, said on 12 January that the latest offer "does not make any significant improvement to the government's 'final' offer made before the magnificent strike on 30 November". They criticised the ballot and accused Ms Hunt of espousing "a sense of defeatism. She seems to think that we cannot win further concessions through negotiations, and seems pessimistic about further industrial action."

• "Exposed: university bosses' lavish expense claims", promised the headline in The Independent on Sunday on 15 January. What followed was less juicy than readers might have hoped. While the newspaper railed against vice-chancellors "paid generous expenses to cover world-wide travel and lavish entertainment on top of salaries eight times the national average", its investigation found the total claimed in 2010-11 had fallen by a fifth, from £883,000 to under £700,000. Among the excesses picked out by the paper were the £900 claimed by Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, for membership of the "plush" Athenaeum Club in London. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said such expenses were an "embarrassment" to the sector. Oxford Brookes argued that the membership saved on costs, offering good value for overnight accommodation and other facilities in the capital.

• "Taxpayers at the heart of the system": so runs the government's plan for higher education, according to forecasts of a £9 billion annual bill from unpaid student debts. Analysis by the investment managers Skandia, reported by The Sunday Times on 15 January, said only graduates who earn average salaries of more than £60,000 will earn enough to pay back their loans in full, meaning that in 30 years' time, £8.7 billion a year at today's prices will have to be written off. A policy billed by the government as a contribution to deficit reduction could, the report says, lead to expenditure more than £2 billion above current spending on universities. Hardly hot news, though. Back in June last year, Tim Leunig, chief economist of the CentreForum thinktank, claimed: "The losses will be huge. That is why taxpayers cannot afford David Willetts."

• The universities and science minister sailed into stormy waters on 16 January, with plans for higher education on the high seas. In a leaked letter, the education secretary Michael Gove wrote to the culture secretary Jeremy Hunt calling for a spectacular celebration to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Mr Gove said: "My suggestion would be a gift from the nation to her majesty; thinking about David Willetts' excellent suggestion of a royal yacht, and something tangible to commemorate this momentous occasion." Mr Willetts had written to Prime Minister David Cameron advocating plans for a privately funded "University of the Oceans" - supported by Prince Charles and Rear Admiral David Bawtree - which "could be used as a training resource for young people and could be made available to research funders as a research vessel". Now former Aimhigher staff know what they should have done to win support from Mr Willetts - hatch a plan for boat-based widening participation led by a rear admiral.

• Sky-high tuition fees in the US "are turning more college-aged girls to the internet in hopes of wrangling in a wealthy suitor through an online dating service", the Daily Mail website reported on 16 January. The paper said that women are adding their profiles to, which bills itself as "the elite sugar daddy dating site for those seeking mutually beneficial relationships". The Mail said that New York University students top the list, followed by those at the University of Toronto and Penn State University. Harvard and the University of California, Los Angeles made the top 10.

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