The week in higher education

January 26, 2012

• The University and College Union may suspend its work-to-rule industrial action on pension cuts in pre-1992 universities after talks with employers. Sally Hunt, the UCU general secretary, wrote to members on 18 January saying that the employers had agreed to two joint reviews of changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme. These reviews would look at pension rights in redundancy for staff aged 55 or over and compare benefits in the new career-average USS section with those in public sector schemes such as the Teachers' Pension Scheme. Ms Hunt said there would be a meeting of branches on 31 January "to decide whether to accept the negotiating team's recommendation that UCU suspend its current action in order to participate in the joint reviews".

• Higher education's shocking lack of patriotism has been noted by the Daily Mail in recent weeks. Not only has it failed to embrace David Willetts' "University of the Oceans" project - the new privately funded £60 million Royal Yacht - but there has also been further dissent as the nation prepares for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Stephen Haseler, professor of government at London Metropolitan University, said that the coalition should cancel "lavish" national celebrations, including a 1,000-boat flotilla on the Thames, noted the Mail's Ephraim Hardcastle on 18 January. A more restrained ceremony should replace the £12 million display to show the monarch "understands the growing economic problems facing British households", Professor Haseler said. It sounds as though someone else will be putting up the bunting in North London on 3 June.

• Feisty state school pupil Elly Nowell reignited the Oxbridge-elitism debate by writing her own letter of rejection to dons. In a parody of the consolatory letters fired off by institutions, the 19-year-old informed Magdalen College, Oxford that it "did not quite meet the standard" of other universities she had visited. Withdrawing her application, the aspiring lawyer said she "felt like the only atheist in a gigantic monastery" during her stay. Her light-hearted missive prompted a rash of "when I was at Oxford" opinion pieces in the national press. But Ms Nowell wrote her own Guardian editorial on 19 January to assert that she was unwilling to join a "group of self-selecting elites". Her remarks may have caused a few splutters at Guardian HQ: a survey of its editorial staff by the newspaper's readers' editor last year found that 37 per cent of respondents were Oxbridge graduates.

The Sunday Times was flogging its favourite dead horse again on 22 January, with reports of an "exodus" of British students to foreign universities. With fees for many UK institutions rising to £9,000 and Ivy League colleges offering "lavish bursary packages" of £24,000 on average, students are often better off financially in the US, the paper said, wheeling out the usual anecdotal evidence. A centre offering the SAT Reasoning Test, an admissions test for applicants to US institutions, said that about 900 UK students took its exams last year and demand "was going up and up". Meanwhile, the numbers applying to US and European universities from top UK private schools have increased. For instance, nine Etonians went to US universities in 2008, rising to 28 in 2011, with a similar number set to go this year. This compares with the 700,000 or so who applied to UK institutions through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service last year. An exodus indeed.

• The university partnerships that will share £67 million in funding for postgraduate training in biosciences were named on 24 January. From October, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council will focus its support on 14 doctoral training partnerships involving 44 research organisations. The move follows the BBSRC's abolition of its Quota Doctoral Training Grants programme, which gave studentship funding to 89 departments at 45 universities. The partnerships are designed to foster collaboration, but the council also hopes to protect "major centres of bioscience research training" as its budget declines by around 12 per cent in real terms over the next spending period. Funded studentships will drop from the current 337 a year to 220.

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