The week in higher education

June 14, 2012

• Universities often argue that schools play a larger part in deciding the future of youngsters from poorer backgrounds, but a new book says the academy could be to blame for creating a social super-elite, according to a report in The Daily Telegraph on 9 June. Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by US political scientist Charles Murray says the expansion of college education means that bright children are now more likely to attend prestigious universities and marry other intelligent people than they were a century ago. The result is a hard core of "Overeducated Elitist Snobs" who are separated from "everybody who isn't as rich and well educated as they are".

• There were varying takes last week on a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research about the value of UK degrees. According to the study, commissioned by the University and College Union and launched at its annual congress in Manchester on 9 June, the net gain to the economy from someone who gains A levels is £47,000, with a degree worth an additional £180,000. However, The Daily Telegraph reported another statistic from the report: higher tuition fees will mean that the premium from holding degrees will now be lower over individual lifetimes, falling from almost £100,000 to more like £80,000 for some. This was because graduates' additional earnings will be eaten into by the extra repayments needed to clear higher levels of student debt.

• The Cultural Olympiad has offered a platform for universities to show off their work, but one of the UK's leading academics has attacked the lack of science in the programme. Fertility expert Lord Winston said it was "shocking" that science had been "largely neglected" from the line-up of 9,000 performances and 8,000 workshops preceding the London Olympics, The Independent reported on 10 June. "I think it's shameful," he said. "If you're having a Cultural Olympiad, not to see science as part of that culture is...incredibly backward."

• Questions about academic standards are never far from the spotlight, but a journal article has brought the issue to the fore once again, The Independent reported on 11 June. Aviezer Tucker, an academic formerly based at Queen's University Belfast, says in The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy that UK university managers are like "central planners" obsessed with quantity rather than quality. He also claims that lecturers at Queen's are put under intense pressure to ensure that students pass their courses. The institution has issued a vehement denial of his claims and has threatened legal action against him, the newspaper reported.

• Open days for prospective undergraduates usually trigger images of huge groups of 18-year-olds trudging around campus trying to spot the nearest bar. But the advent of £9,000 fees and free competition for high-achieving students from this autumn has changed the nature of the annual ritual, The Times reported on 11 June. Desperate to make sure that undergraduates (and their attached funds) choose correctly, institutions are using concert tickets, free gym memberships and all-expenses-paid visits to entice them. One of the schemes highlighted was the University of East Anglia's "ultimate open day" competition, where successful students can bring their parents and three friends to visit the campus, with UEA footing the bill.

• On 11 June, the government finally published its response to consultations on its higher education reforms. But as well as confirming that ministers will not be pressing ahead with major legislation on universities, it also shows that there is little stomach for a fight over post-qualifications applications. In March, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service published a report that ditched proposals for students to apply to university after receiving their A-level results in light of opposition from the sector and schools. In its statement, the government says it will not commission further work on the feasibility and benefits of a PQA model. "Admissions are a matter for the higher education sector. This is not an issue for government to impose on universities and schools," it adds.

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