The week in higher education

February 16, 2012

• Losses on the government's student loans book could be offset by the state's ability to borrow at record-low costs, two economists have argued. In a letter to the Financial Times on 8 February, Tim Leunig, of the London School of Economics, and Neil Shephard, of the University of Oxford, said the state was able to borrow at 0 per cent thanks to falls in index-linked bond yields. Interest payments from high-earning graduates will cover losses from those unable to repay, they say. At no extra cost to the state, the government should "increase numbers of students at English universities as a matter of urgency" because this would "cut youth unemployment in the short run, and raise employability, average wages, growth and tax revenues in the medium to long term".

• Posters at Swansea University showing the correct way to use the lavatory have been condemned as "ridiculous and belittling". The signs were introduced because "cultural differences" meant that foreign students had left lavatories in an unhygienic state, The Daily Telegraph said on 11 February. The signs carry diagrams indicating that users should sit on the toilet with their feet on the floor rather than attempt to squat over the bowl. "Do please sit on the toilet appropriately to avoid mess," it reads. "Most of us found the posters quite funny until we realised it wasn't meant to be a joke," said Hannah Prosser, a third-year English student.

• The Office for Fair Access came under fire in the letters pages of The Daily Telegraph. On 11 February, Adrian Crisp, of Great Abington, Cambridgeshire, wrote: "It is clear that genetic inheritance is the main determinant of behaviour and intellect. Universities must identify bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds...But this number is likely to be small. Any policy to punish universities for failing to admit some arbitrary quota from the disadvantaged is an ignorant vendetta."

• A crack squad of Fleet Street columnists meted out even harsher treatment to Les Ebdon, depicted as a noted social engineer and champion of "Mickey Mouse" degrees, whose nomination as director of Offa was rejected by Conservative MPs. The Daily Mail's Melanie Phillips warned that under the University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor, an "Orwellian persecution of excellence would be redoubled", while universities would "feel his 'iron fist' crashing down and smashing what remains of education standards to smithereens", she wrote on 13 February. Dominic Lawson used his column in The Sunday Times to report a recent conversation with an anonymous university leader. He said his source "was concerned that he would have suicides on his hands if admissions tutors, out of fear of punitive sanctions from Offa, took on inadequately educated students who found that they simply could not cope with the syllabus". Mr Lawson wondered: "Would Ebdon regard such a horrible outcome as his own responsibility or solely that of the university for failing to 'equalise'" Charles Moore, in The Daily Telegraph, deployed a literary allusion in his attack. He referred to the title character of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure, noting happily how Jude is struck with awe as he gazes on Christminster (modelled on Oxford) from afar. "People such as Professor Ebdon will never understand poor people like Jude," Mr Moore said. A curious allusion, as Jude's dreams of university are defeated by his humble origins. But we trust Mr Moore (Eton, University of Cambridge) has set straight Professor Ebdon (council estate upbringing, grammar school, Imperial College London) on the ambitions of "poor people".

• The National Union of Students is planning a classroom boycott to protest against the government's higher education reforms, The Guardian reported on 13 February. In a circular to members, NUS president Liam Burns said mass walkouts on 14 March would "demonstrate to (vice-chancellors and) principals...that students will not stand by and let the coalition...press ahead with its destructive policies to sell off and privatise our universities". A separate student group, the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts, is preparing occupations and marches in the same week.

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