The week in higher education

September 27, 2012

• Tributes from across the sector have been paid to Mike Baker, the former BBC education correspondent, who died this week. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, described him in a BBC report on 22 September as "a master at conveying complicated details to a mass audience", while Baroness Morris of Yardley, the former education secretary, said that Mr Baker's "perceptive and wise" coverage meant that there were few "better examples of all that is good in public service broadcasting and journalism". The 55-year-old, who retired from the BBC five years ago after years at the corporation, died after a battle with lung cancer that he detailed in a widely read blog.

• David Willetts incurred the wrath of his constituents this week after complaints were made about the dilapidated state of a house he owns on the South Coast, which reportedly has a lobelia plant growing out of the roof. The universities and science minister is engaged in something of an ongoing battle with the property, which sits next door to his Havant home, according to the Portsmouth News on 19 September. He had hoped to convert the 17th-century building, which he purchased for £220,000 in 2008. However, surveyors later found it to be structurally unsafe, and it has been encased in scaffolding for two years. Tim Dawes, a member of the Havant Civic Society, which campaigns to protect the heritage of the town, told the newspaper: "I think it is beholden to David Willetts, who likes to demonstrate that he has the interests of the town at heart, to do something about it." Mr Willetts said he understood people's frustrations and was planning to submit a "revised application" to develop the property very soon. It is believed that the lobelia plant will not feature in his proposal.

• England's higher education sector can only look on with envy after the Scottish government confirmed on 20 September that it will increase funding council spending by £40 million in 2013-14, honouring a commitment made in its three-year spending review last year. Universities Scotland welcomed the draft budget, although it comes after funding was cut by 8 per cent in 2011-12. The Holyrood plans also show that the expected annual cost of graduates failing to repay student loans is expected to more than double over the next four years, rising to £182 million by 2014-15.

• If Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg intended his video apology for his party's tuition fees pledge to heal his wounded relationship with the student population, he's likely to be disappointed. According to a poll released on 24 September by the National Union of Students, just one in 10 students are more likely to vote for the party as a result of the apology, while almost half say they are less likely to. However, if Mr Clegg wanted his message to enter the pop charts, then he was the week's big achiever. A remix of his apology created by satirical website The Poke, complete with a boy band-esque backing track and a chorus as catchy and enjoyable as the common cold, went viral online, before entering the UK's digital download charts.

• Meanwhile, it seems that the Liberal Democrats were actually on the verge of persuading the Conservatives to abolish fees and introduce a "graduate contribution system" in 2010, only to be thwarted by the pesky Civil Service and universities. Well, that is the Simon Hughes version of history, at least. Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference in Brighton on 24 September, the party's deputy leader said the coalition "could have voted to get rid of tuition fees by repealing that piece of legislation and introduce a short piece of legislation - and that's a graduate contribution system". But he said that "universities, in particular, backed by the civil servants" said there was not enough time to do so. Government business managers were also worried that "we could have had not just one big day of student demonstrations...but two weeks of [them]", Mr Hughes told the event, hosted by Universities UK and the Social Market Foundation.

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