The week in higher education

March 1, 2012

• Rick Santorum has again denounced US universities as secular "indoctrination mills" as the race for the Republican presidential nomination continues. In an hour-long interview with GBTV's Glenn Beck on 23 February, Mr Santorum said that "62 per cent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it", but declined to cite a source for the figure. As he continues his crusade against the academy, Mr Santorum is certainly living up to one critic's description of him as "one of the finest minds of the 13th century".

• If you thought the press had gone into enough detail about why Les Ebdon is a menace to society, think again. Keeping the flame alive was the Daily Mail, which made space for an epic 2,100-word exposé of the University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor on 25 February, dubbing him "the man who wants to dumb down Britain's universities". Poring over every aspect of Professor Ebdon's life (family bereavement included), the double-page spread made shocking revelations about this "unashamed social engineer": he enjoys vegetable gardening, lives in Hitchin and has a "penchant for shapeless suits and loud ties". The 1,500-word hatchet job in The Daily Telegraph on the same day seemed mild by comparison.

• The University of Cambridge is considering going private, The Sunday Times claimed on 26 February. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of Cambridge, told parliamentarians at a Westminster dinner that the university was considering leaving the state system, the paper reported. "He made it clear it was under serious consideration," claimed a source who was present. "Someone asked him 'why don't you stop messing around and go for it?'" Government officials are in discussions with the Higher Education Funding Council for England about creating a mechanism to allow universities to go private, the paper added.

• "We do not have enough scientists in government," complained Sir Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, in a Sunday Times interview. But why do so few scientists make the leap into politics? The treatment of Julian Huppert, formerly a biological chemist at Trinity College, Cambridge and now Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge, might be revealing. Dr Huppert is mercilessly derided by sketch writers for his "know-all" contributions in the House of Commons each week, with Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail taking a particular dislike to "this sanctimonious old granny". Bored with his "Old Mother Huppert" taunts, Mr Letts has coined a fresh insult: Dr Huppert's new nickname is "Fozzie", after the ginger-haired Muppet.

• The expansion of higher education over the past 15 years has largely benefited middle-class children, a study published on 28 February by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex suggests. Analysis of data on almost 34,000 people collected by the Economic and Social Research Council's Understanding Society longitudinal survey shows that the proportion of people aged between 22 and 34 with degrees is 8.6 per cent higher than those between 37 and 49. But among those whose parents hold "routine and manual occupations", the proportion of degree-holders in the younger group grew by only 5 per cent.

• Funding chiefs revealed the first details of how they plan to allocate what is left of the teaching grant from 2013 in a consultation launched on 29 February. The Higher Education Funding Council for England proposes to create a new "price band" for subjects including archaeology, the creative arts and media studies that cost more than £7,500 per student to provide. Under the plans, universities would receive £250 per student on such courses to help cover costs. Hefce also plans to continue to control undergraduate numbers, with minor changes around certain student categories. However, the government could still expand competition for students through changes to its AAB and core-and-margin policies, with an announcement expected shortly.

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