The week in higher education

June 7, 2012

• Is a letter signed by the vice-chancellors of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge one of the most powerful pieces of paper in existence? Many will be wondering after a U-turn by the government last week on plans to cap the amount of tax relief that could be claimed by major philanthropists - or the "charity tax", as it had been dubbed by its opponents. The Oxbridge plea to George Osborne, the chancellor, made in April with the backing of Universities UK, was one of the most high-profile interventions in a vigorous lobbying campaign by the sector. Oxbridge received nearly £250 million in gifts in 2010-11 - 44 per cent of the entire sector's haul - while the rest of the Russell Group took home 26 per cent.

• The dubious honour of the UK's most promiscuous higher education institution has gone to, yes, Bangor University. According to studentbeans.com, Bangor students boasted 8.31 sexual partners on average since starting university - over seven times the measly 1.15 declared by undergraduates at the University of Essex, now dubbed "the University of No-sex". Based on a survey of more than 4,600 students, the "University Sex League" also shows that the University of Oxford (3.44 partners) has fallen behind its Varsity rival the University of Cambridge (4.62) in the bed-hopping stakes. Swiftly branded "the world's least believable league table" by Twitter wags after its release on 25 May, the survey may nevertheless provide illuminating insights for university applicants. For instance, economics students boast three times as many conquests as those doing environmental sciences. Perhaps it is time to include the survey in next year's Key Information Sets?

• A pill created to treat Alzheimer's disease could help shopaholics to curb their spending, the Daily Mail reported on 29 May. Scientists at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, found that a drug called memantine helped those diagnosed with compulsive buying disorder to resist impulse spending. At the end of a two-month trial, the shopaholics said that the amount of time and money they devoted to shopping had been halved. The drug also reduced symptoms of obsessive behaviours such as anxiety, stress and depression. "These people become addicted to shopping, it takes over their lives and it's necessary to alter the 'chemical soup' in their brain in order to help them", TV psychologist Cecilia d'Felice told the Mail.

• Pay for university leaders may soon be linked to student satisfaction, suggested Nick Petford, vice-chancellor of the University of Northampton. Writing for the Guardian online on 31 May, Professor Petford wondered if the UK's highest-paid v-cs were worth their wages, as many of them received more than twice the £142,000 salary paid to the prime minister. He concluded that they were no more overpaid than NHS managers, school "superheads" or newspaper editors who earned between one and three times David Cameron's wage. He also predicted that pay would be set "based on the student voice" in future years - something that Professor Petford (total cost of office for 2010-11: £164,000) might welcome, as it could move him out of the bottom tier of vice-chancellors' pay.

• Hard-up students at the University of Hull have been handed food parcels to help stop them racking up debt. Dozens of survival packs have been distributed by the university this year as parents lost jobs and students ran out of money, The Independent reported on 1 June. Hull's advice centre said that it had dealt with 2,300 hardship enquiries from students in this academic year, compared with 1,500 in 2008-09, and handed out 70 food parcels so far. The emergency rations consist of budget supermarket staples and are worth a little under £5, the newspaper reported.

• University applications by English students have plummeted by 10 per cent as tuition fees rise to up to £9,000 a year, the Daily Mail reported on 1 June. The number of potential students applying is down by almost 50,000 compared with the same point last year - standing at about 418,000 - according to figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. Across the UK, applications from 18-year-olds fell by only 2.6 per cent, with sharper drops in applications from older students.

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