The week in higher education

August 16, 2012

• Opinions differ on the best indicator that we are in the silly season, but one might be the writing in August of news stories that had already been published in January. Nicely fitting this bill was the media storm over a report by the Independent Commission on Fees, published on 9 August. "Rise to £9,000 a year put off potential students, independent study finds", intoned The Guardian, highlighting the report's revelation that university applications are down this year. Although the study does identify 15,000 "missing applicants" likely to have been put off by higher fees, it appears to reach a similar conclusion to the one hammered home in media reports on Universities and Colleges Admissions Service statistics since the start of the year.

• Although the Olympic dream is over, for now at least, the dying hours of the London 2012 Games did not pass without one of its main faces giving two universities a prime-time mention. After the Jamaican 4x100m relay team broke the world record in winning the event on 11 August, Usain Bolt chose to thank not Lord Coe for his hospitality but the University of Birmingham, where the country's athletes had been based. "I'd like to say all the big up to Birmingham, the university. That's where we trained; they really supported us. We got everything possible. We got indoor facilities, the gym works and everything, so for me it's an honour," the Birmingham Mail reported. The newspaper said it was the second time Mr Bolt had mentioned Birmingham, having also paid tribute after his success in the 200m final. But the university was not the only institution to meet the sprint team's approval - Brunel University was also praised for hosting Jamaican athletes in the past.

• A-level results day is upon us once again and that can only mean one thing - stories moaning about stories that focus too much on elite universities. Cue The Guardian on 11 August, whose Lucy Mangan criticised the "traditional furore about the number of white, upper-class, privately educated, male students who get into Oxford and Cambridge, compared with the percentage of non-pink, non-posh, non-privileged, non-penised people who go on to study in the land of dreaming spires or a punt-strewn idyll". She said that the Oxbridge obsession was a "jangling distraction" from the "real issue" of "an unfair, inequitable and unconscionable educational filtering system that begins at the moment of birth". However, the real amusement came in a reader comment later flagged up on Twitter by right-leaning Westminster blogger Guido Fawkes. "I think its (sic) fair to say we are all against privilage (sic) in education and employment," wrote Emma Chisset, before listing the Oxbridge education of dozens of Guardian journalists and contributors, including Polly Toynbee and Alan Rusbridger.

• On 14 August, global media giant Pearson unveiled Pearson College, where from September students may take business and enterprise degrees validated by Royal Holloway, University of London. Pearson lost out with the shelving of the higher education bill earlier this year, which was likely to have contained plans to allow "non-teaching bodies" to gain degree-awarding powers. This week's announcement says that Pearson will "directly deliver" its business and enterprise degrees at its offices in London and Manchester. Will that make it a teaching body, one eventually able to apply to award degrees? Perhaps the company, like everyone else in the sector, is tired of waiting for the bill.

• The top 10 universities in the world are unchanged, according to the 2012 Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities, released on 15 August. However, for the first time China has more institutions in the top 500 than the UK. Harvard University took the top spot for the 10th year running, while the University of Cambridge was ranked fifth and the University of Oxford 10th. The US showed little sign of relinquishing its dominance, boasting 17 of the top 20 universities and 53 of the top 100, the same as last year. The UK slipped slightly with two in the top 20 and nine in the top 100, one fewer in each band than last year. China still has no institutions in the top 100 but managed 42 overall, four more than the UK.

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