The week in higher education

April 5, 2012

• The 1994 Group was dealt a blow last month when four member universities - Durham, Exeter, York and Queen Mary, University of London - announced that they were ditching the network of "small but beautiful" universities for the gorgeous, pouting Russell Group. So how are things since the break-up? Not great, to judge by the 1994 Group's statement about the Higher Education Funding Council for England's grants and student number controls for next year. Michael Farthing, the group's chair, lamented the government's decision to allow unlimited recruitment of only students with A-level grades of AAB and above. He said: "There are only so many AAB students to go around, and they are likely to be snapped up by a few self-declared 'elite' institutions, able to rely on historical brand prestige to attract applications." Whoever can he mean?

• Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, has won the latest stage of her bid to flush out a hard-left group in the union seen by critics as a vehicle for the Socialist Workers Party. On 29 March, the UCU announced that 88.6 per cent of members who voted in a recent consultation had backed Ms Hunt's plan to shrink the national executive committee. A similar proportion, 85.1 per cent, voted to be balloted on offers in disputes "whenever the majority of negotiators believe a final offer is on the table" - which trims the sails of NEC members keen to strike at all costs. The SWP's newspaper, Socialist Worker, had said that the moves would "hollow out democracy". But after months of internal turmoil, the UCU may now have some energy to direct to pay negotiations with the employers.

• Deep in the vice-chancellor's bunker at the University of Bedfordshire, Les Ebdon, the new director of fair access, may have stretched a finger towards the red button of his much-famed "nuclear option". Almost all Russell Group universities fell short of targets for admitting more state-schools pupils in 2010-11, according to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. Of the 20 large research-intensive universities, only Sheffield and Liverpool hit Hesa's benchmarks. The University of Oxford had the Russell Group's lowest proportion of state-school entrants, 55.2 per cent, while 59 per cent of students entered the University of Cambridge from the maintained sector.

• Scholars often ask: "What is higher education for?" But teaching Buddhist monks to spout corporate mumbo-jumbo is rarely offered as an answer. On 2 April, the Financial Times reported on Keisuke Matsumoto, a monk at a Tokyo temple who took a break to complete an MBA at the Indian School of Business at Hyderabad. The course had helped him to discover "how to manage a temple as a mission-orientated organisation" and to master the art of thinking "outside-in" rather than "inside-out", he said. Lessons on customer relations management paralleled the Buddha's practice of adapting teaching to a student's ability, he said: "I was struck anew by the Buddha's management capability."

• The education secretary has made another play to bring universities and his own department closer together with a call for Russell Group universities to determine A-level content. In a letter to Ofqual, the exams regulator, Michael Gove says he is "particularly keen that universities should be able to determine subject content, and that they should endorse specifications, including details of how the subject should be assessed", the BBC's Newsnight reported on 2 April. However, the move appeared to irk non-Russell Group institutions, with Universities UK saying that the "whole sector" should be included.

• It seems that plagiarism scandals can topple even presidents. Hungary's Pal Schmitt resigned this week after a doctoral dissertation he wrote 20 years ago was revoked last week, The Independent reported - crediting the Associated Press - on 3 April. Budapest's Semmelweis University found that much of his thesis on the modern Olympic Games had been copied from the work of two other authors. Mr Schmitt, who won Olympic gold medals for fencing in 1968 and in 1972, was elected to the largely ceremonial role of president in 2010.

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