The week in higher education

April 26, 2012

• David Willetts escaped much of the flak in February's row over the appointment of Les Ebdon as director of the Office for Fair Access despite being behind the decision. Two months on, the universities and science minister might well have thought he had dodged a bullet, only for the Daily Mail to pop up and give him both barrels on 19 April with a headline denouncing "The Tory social engineer". Mr Willetts told the Higher Education Funding Council for England's annual conference that "middle-class teenagers with top A-level results should be turned down for university places in favour of less privileged pupils with poorer grades who show 'potential'," the newspaper claimed. Mr Willetts took a trip to the Falkland Islands and Antarctica during the furore over Professor Ebdon's appointment - he may need a trip to the Moon to escape the Daily Mail bearing a grudge.

• Liam Burns, president of the National Union of Students, finds it "astonishing" that there is no legal obligation for university lecturers to complete teaching qualifications. In an interview with The Observer on 22 April, Mr Burns said: "Personally, as a student, I don't think it is that controversial for my teachers to be qualified to teach. The institutions themselves absolutely baulked at the idea...I just find that absolutely astonishing in the context of students perceiving themselves to be paying £,000." As Mr Burns will know, the Higher Education Academy was given a sound slapping-down by the sector last year after proposing in a consultation that lecturers complete subject-specific teaching qualifications. In the context of vice-chancellors lobbying to charge students higher tuition fees, the stance looks like an invitation to occupations by militant consumerist students.

• The perils of life as a public academic were demonstrated as University of Cambridge classicist Mary Beard became the centre of a Twitter spat over her appearance. TV critic A.A. Gill, reviewing Professor Beard's BBC Two series Meet the Romans, said she "should be kept away from cameras altogether" and was "this far from being the subject of a Channel 4 dating documentary" - a reference to The Undateables, a series about people with disabilities or disfigurements. Mr Gill has form, having described BBC presenter Clare Balding (who read English at Newnham College, where Professor Beard teaches) as a "dyke on a bike", The Daily Telegraph noted on 23 April. Professor Beard, who has described herself as "every inch the 57-year-old academic" with shoulders hunched from years poring over a library desk, said on Twitter that Mr Gill seems to have "a special hatred of Newnham women".

• Each year, spring brings a familiar cycle: trees whiten with blossom, bluebells flower under April showers, and universities slap a below-inflation pay offer on the table. The sector's five unions said on 24 April that they had rejected the latest, 0.8 per cent offer for 2012-13 from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. The unions had earlier entered an ambitious 7 per cent claim, which they said was aimed at keeping pace with inflation and atoning for three successive settlements of 0.5 per cent or less. But the claim would cost the sector £1 billion, Ucea has said. And given that higher fees start in 2012, the government may well issue dark warnings about encouraging the popular perception that the extra cash from students will be diverted into keeping academics in leather elbow patches.

• The 1994 Group's new executive director will be Alex Bols, who joins from the National Union of Students, where he served as head of education and quality and assistant director (research). Mr Bols, whose appointment was announced on 26 April and who starts his new role in mid-June, replaces Paul Marshall, who left to become chief executive of the Association of Business Schools. Tempers at the 1994 Group are probably just beginning to subside from volcanic levels following the recent announcement that four members (the universities of Durham, Exeter and York and Queen Mary, University of London) will leave for the Russell Group on 1 August. Exeter appears to be so excited by its elevation to the elite that, in a breakdown of mission groups on its website, it already lists itself as a Russell Group member.

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