The week in higher education

July 5, 2012

• The roll call of intellectual heavyweights pronouncing on the future of higher education from Robbins to Dearing now boasts a new name: Titchmarsh. In a 30 June interview with The Daily Telegraph, the gardening guru Alan Titchmarsh said he hoped rising tuition fees would see teenagers turn instead to careers in horticulture. "We need to see a demonstration of the fact that cultivational skills, whether it's agriculture or horticulture, are valued," he added. That must be confusing for the higher education institutions, such as the Royal Agricultural College, active in those very fields.

• The fallout from The Daily Telegraph's probe into the recruitment of overseas students saw a former public school headteacher criticise universities for "recruiting very heavily from the Asian tiger economies". Martin Stephen, former high master of St Paul's School, said on 30 June that "students from those educational systems often lack the sort of creativity and imagination that elite higher education institutions require to thrive...too many of the overseas students are the sort much more likely to excel at manufacturing the iPad than inventing it". The success of Asian tech firms such as Samsung, founded on research and innovation, must thus remain a mystery.

• Which male higher education figure was described by a national newspaper as a "dreamboat"? Not one of the sector's many gorgeous vice-chancellors, but Chuka Umunna, Labour's shadow business secretary. Camilla Long's breathless interview in The Sunday Times on 1 July touched on Mr Umunna's looks, the mysterious death of his Nigerian father and his youthful adventures in marijuana and house music. Sadly, there was not a word on higher education, the biggest area of spending in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Perhaps Mr Umunna was merely following the lead of the man he shadows, Vince Cable, who is responsible for higher education as Secretary of State but rarely discusses it in public.

• If there is one thing certain to make universities nervous as they bank on students' willingness to pay fees of £9,000, it is talk of "graduates without a future". Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight's economics editor, discussed the theme in a Guardian opinion piece on 2 July. He argued that the West "cannot deliver enough high-value work for its highly educated workforce", while lamenting "life-limiting vocational choices" for students. "When I was at university (Sheffield, 1978-81) I found time to play in a band, picket a steelworks, occupy several buildings, write embarrassingly bad fiction, switch courses and demand the creation of a special dual degree to suit my life's purpose," said Mr Mason, seemingly unconcerned at his prospects of featuring as a star alumnus in Sheffield prospectuses.

• The University of Birmingham withdrew an advert for an "honorary" unpaid research assistant under a hail of criticism on 2 July. The position, advertised online, required applicants to commit to working at least two days a week on a "voluntary basis" on a new clinical study of mental illness in its School of Psychology. But the advert disappeared after the University and College Union denounced it, joining critics including the science writer Ben Goldacre. The incident follows the furore over unpaid work for jobseekers, an issue that rose to prominence when Cait Reilly took legal action against the government after being forced to stack shelves unpaid at Poundland. You might think Birmingham was well placed to appreciate the pitfalls of unpaid work schemes: Ms Reilly is a recent Birmingham graduate.

• Wales has continued to forge its own path on higher education reform with the devolved government proposing a shift in how quality is assessed in the sector. A White Paper released by the Cardiff government on 2 July rejects improving quality on the "basis of competition and customer choice", in a rebuff to the new English market system. But it does suggest that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales will have a new "statutory responsibility for quality enhancement". Meanwhile, the University of Glamorgan and the University of Wales, Newport have decided to merge without Cardiff Metropolitan University, which opposes plans by education minister Leighton Andrews to combine the three institutions.

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