The week in higher education

February 9, 2012

• Everybody enjoys a good old-fashioned academic spat, and Geoffrey Hill, professor of poetry at the University of Oxford, has obliged by picking a fight with the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. Professor Hill said on 31 January that "so much of the popular poetry of today treats people as if they were fools" and appeared to take umbrage at an interview the Poet Laureate granted to The Guardian last September in which she praised social media and said that poetry was "a form of's the original text". Professor Hill accused her of writing in a manner "such as is employed by writers for Mills & Boon". As is well known, Mills & Boon novels contain copious amounts of sex, scandal and intrigue - rather like the election process for Oxford's chair in poetry.

• An individual who had been paid in full and on time by the Student Loans Company came to the attention of the national press last week. Unfortunately for the organisation, that person was not a student but chief executive Ed Lester. It was revealed on 1 February that Mr Lester's salary had been paid via a private company, allowing him to save tens of thousands of pounds in income tax. Vince Cable, the business secretary, insisted that the deal was signed off by the Treasury and that the salary was designed with value for the taxpayer in mind. More worryingly, Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, claimed he was unaware that the deal, which he signed off, came with "any potential tax benefit". It can only be hoped that Mr Alexander has been more thorough in his assessment of the costs of the new student loans system.

• A preferred bidder has entered "exclusive negotiations" to buy the not-for-profit College of Law, it has been claimed, with Pearson, the large for-profit owner of examination board Edexcel, believed to be the most likely candidate. The details of the ongoing deal were reported by the magazine EducationInvestor on 6 February, and follow Pearson's decision to sell its £450 million stake in FTSE International, giving it ample funds for any takeover. The firm has been open about its desire to gain degree-awarding powers, and has been cited by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, as an organisation that could benefit from proposed reforms to the higher education system.

• Relying solely on A-level grades to determine student potential is "further to privilege the already privileged", a professor of higher education has argued. Writing in The Guardian on 7 February, Sir Peter Scott paraphrased Mr Micawber from Dickens' David Copperfield, saying that a system where AAB "result happiness" and AAC "result misery" gives "disproportionate rewards to those whose way in life has been smooth". Describing the government's core-and-margin and AAB plans as "apartheid", Sir Peter said that vice-chancellors who discounted lower-achieving students were "putting an idea, an abstraction, a policy construct, before the lives of real people who are born, live, love and are bound to die".

• With the political wrangling going into overdrive over Les Ebdon's nomination to head the Office for Fair Access, the right-wing press turned their fire on David Willetts on 7 February. "These are trying times for universities minister David 'Two Brains' Willetts with a major government reshuffle imminent," said the Daily Mail following Professor Ebdon's appearance before hostile Tory MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. The nomination of Professor Ebdon, who the Mail said was a "Labour adviser", "champion of Mickey Mouse degrees" and "fierce critic of government education policy", came at a time when the education secretary Michael Gove is lobbying to take back control of higher education, it said. The newspaper noted that this "would make Willetts redundant". The Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, reported that Mr Gove was personally opposing Professor Ebdon's appointment, warning No 10 that "vice-chancellors will choose to go private rather than comply with his orders to take more working-class students". The select committee's decision on Professor Ebdon's nomination had not been made public at the time of going to press. For updates, see

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