The week in higher education

August 23, 2012

• David Willetts, the universities and science minister, ushered in A-level results and clearing by calling for elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge to expand. In comments reported by The Daily Telegraph on 16 August, the minister said he hoped that the relaxation of number controls for high-achieving applicants would mean Oxbridge would be able to "find ways in which they can finance growth in the number of undergraduates". This prompted an angry response from the same newspaper's blogger and columnist Martin Stephen, the former high master of independent school St Paul's. The "magic" of Oxbridge is in its "intimacy and the overwhelming influence of the tutorial and collegiate systems, both of which would be overwhelmed by increased numbers", said Dr Stephen, outraged, as he usually is, by developments and even potential developments in higher education.

• "Bring back the polys" was the cry from Tristram Hunt, Labour MP and lecturer in history at Queen Mary, University of London. Writing in The Observer on 19 August, the MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central argued that "a new plan for some form of polytechnic-style capacity is needed". He protested that "universities are expected to be all things to all people", which meant "many middle-ranking universities, unable to compete on cost or quality, will suffer". Could this herald new thinking from Labour in the event of an election victory? The kite could be flown again in the party conference season, if angry vice-chancellors from post-1992 universities don't pull it down and stamp on it.

Loughborough University scientists came second in an international competition to reinvent the toilet, the BBC website reported on 19 August. In a competition organised by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Loughborough team finished behind the California Institute of Technology but ahead of the University of Toronto. The aim was to create a clean, safe, affordable toilet without piped water, sewer or electrical connections. Muhammad Sohail, Loughborough's project leader and professor of sustainable infrastructure, said: "This toilet creates something that looks and smells like coffee and has a combustible element so could be used as fuel in home cooking or as a fertiliser." Now Loughborough has some innovative potential solutions if it ever wants to save money on its coffee machines.

• Everyone knows the feeling of dread that comes with pressing "send" too early on an email, but such a mistake is not normally too costly. However, the University of Ulster was suddenly forced to find room for extra students on some of its courses after accidentally emailing 370 applicants offering them a place when it was still only considering their applications. On 20 August, Ulster announced that it would honour all the offers, except 20 made to students who had not yet submitted complete examination results. Richard Barnett, the vice-chancellor, told the BBC that there would be "some students who we believe do not have the qualifications to go on to the honours degree", meaning it will have to offer them places on a foundation year course. Because of the error, the university may face over-recruitment fines for admitting too many students. Northern Ireland's minister for employment and learning, Stephen Farry, said he would look "sympathetically" on Ulster's case, but added that the breach of the student numbers cap could not be taken "lightly".

• Widening access is all the rage in the UK; drastically limiting it is the name of the game in Iran. Thirty-six of Iran's universities "have announced that 77 BA and BSc courses in the coming academic year will be 'single gender' and effectively exclusive to men", The Daily Telegraph reported on 20 August. Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, highlighted the move in a letter to Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general. "(It) is part of the recent policy of the Islamic Republic, which tries to return women to the private domain inside the home as it cannot tolerate their passionate presence in the public arena," says the letter. "The aim is that women will give up their opposition and demands for their own rights."

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