The week in higher education

July 19, 2012

• When Karl Marx outlined his theory of class conflict, he missed one key contributing factor: the use of contextual data in university admissions. "Social engineering 'could lead to class war'", read a Daily Mail headline on 11 July, reporting on comments made by the government social mobility tsar Alan Milburn in an appearance before a cross-party group of MPs. Mr Milburn, a former Labour MP who spent five years in Tony Blair's Cabinet, warned that "moves to give priority to working-class university applicants and create an array of social mobility targets risked alienating the better off", the newspaper said. He told MPs from the Education Select Committee: "If we're not very careful, we will end up in a position where we're pitting the interests of kids at the very bottom against the kids in the middle."

• Two universities have seen their plans for free schools approved by Michael Gove, the education secretary. The University of Birmingham School and Sixth Form will cater for pupils aged between 11 and 18, while the University of Chester is involved in the University Cathedral School, a primary school. The two institutions, which were on the list of 102 approved free schools released by the government on 12 July, will be central to the universities' teacher-training programmes, with Birmingham billing its institution as a University Training School. As Mr Gove asserted that free schools were "driving up standards across the country" in a press release announcing the latest crop of institutions, Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, took to Twitter to claim that the city's school was merely "more Gove 'top-downary'".

• Only rarely do the national media treat us to the spectacle of a University College London professor of viral oncology contemplating his pubic hair. On 15 July The Sunday Times featured an extract from Jesse Bering's book Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? - an examination of scientific research on our "nether regions" that asks why humans are the only species of primate with pubic hair. "Robin Weiss, a professor from University College London's division of infection and immunity, found himself standing in the shower one day, looking down, and asking this very question," the piece said. After visits to various zoos, Professor Weiss decided that "monkeys seem to be less hairy in the pubic region than elsewhere", speculating that pubic hair developed as a signal of sexual maturation as humans' bodies became freer of hair - and that human pubic lice descended from gorilla lice.

• The Home Office is on the warpath over its restrictions on overseas students, perhaps in response to a determined lobbying campaign from Universities UK to withdraw them from the net migrant count. The Sunday Times reported on 15 July that a Home Office investigation had found that one in three overseas students granted visas to enter the UK "should never have been granted them, either because they speak little English or they have no intention of completing their studies and leaving the country". The proportion of visa holders "lacking credibility" rose as high as 59 per cent for applicants from India, the newspaper said. The story may further darken the mood of one government minister, said to refer to the Home Office - in less than collegiate fashion - as "the Department for Anti-Globalisation".

• Author Sarah Johnson outlined how she chose a university for her son in The Daily Telegraph on 17 July. Her initial three steps involved sorting institutions by grade tariff for course entry, graduate employment records and location. At one open day, she recalled, "my son and I sat at a table, he with a baseball cap pulled over his eyes and his arms folded, and me, armed with pashmina and handbag, making copious notes in my Orla Kiely notebook". At another table, a similar youth's "pashmina-ed mother looked up from her Orla Kiely notebook" and "our eyes met in comradely matronhood. Somehow, we knew, we were all going to get through this." Having found a university favoured by other helicopter parents with a taste for designer goods, Ms Johnson is probably in the right place.

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