The week in higher education

October 18, 2012

• A Guardian feature on the Conservative Party conference trumpeted the "return of the Nasty Party" on 11 October. One anonymous delegate told the newspaper that he might leave the party over David Cameron's support for gay marriage and declared himself "all in favour of re-toxifying the brand. In fact, I nearly got someone to make me a badge saying The Nasty Party." The delegate had a startling remedy for the party's ills: "I'd have Michael Gove as prime minister, with David Willetts as chancellor." Warm praise for the universities and science minister, but a Gove-Willetts dream ticket seems unlikely. Troubled waters between the pair stretch back to 2007, when Mr Willetts, then shadow minister for education, launched an ill-fated attack on grammar schools. After outraging the Tory Right, he was demoted to the universities brief and replaced by Mr Gove in the education role.

• Such unhappy memories for Mr Willetts were also raked up in the serialisation of a new George Osborne biography in the Daily Mail on 14 October. Janan Ganesh's book says the chancellor was "far from distraught" when Mr Willetts was savaged over his grammar schools speech. It explains: "Willetts had always wanted to be shadow chancellor but now staggered on as a diminished figure. 'Well, he'll never have my job then!' Osborne chuckled as Willetts was demoted." It is hard to know which is more unfair: the idea that Mr Osborne is unsympathetic to the plight of others, or the idea that the author of the 2011 higher education White Paper is a diminished figure.

• It was only a matter of time: the Sir Jimmy Savile scandal has finally spread far enough to reach the higher education sector, with the continuing sex abuse allegations leading the University of Bedfordshire to rescind an honorary degree it conferred on the now-disgraced star in 2009. Nonetheless, a picture from the ceremony featuring the entertainer and Les Ebdon, Bedfordshire's former vice-chancellor, was seized on by The Daily Telegraph as an opportunity to attack the new director of fair access. The paper said on 12 October that its favourite higher education bogeyman "has made it his mission to cut the number of privately educated children accepted into top universities" but was "more than happy to welcome Sir Jimmy Savile into academia". On Savile's death last year, Professor Ebdon said "the world is a bit diminished for his passing". But as the scandal broke, the university removed the offending comment from its website because it was being quoted "out of context".

• Despite all five of higher education's main unions balloting over industrial action on pay, just one has decided to press ahead with a strike. Negotiators for the University and College Union, Unison, Unite, GMB and the Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS) had recommended that their members reject a final offer of 1 per cent after demanding a 7 per cent rise from employers this year. However, polling results showed a less-than-overwhelming appetite for a strike across most unions, with the UCU recording a 55.7 per cent majority against such a step. Only the EIS, Scotland's largest teaching union, called a strike for 23 October after 54 per cent of voting members backed the move. The UCU, Unison and GMB ruled out a strike, while Unite said it would consult branches on whether to pursue a walkout.

The Sunday Telegraph reported on 14 October that universities are "scrapping traditional interviews over concerns that they favour applicants from middle-class families and independent schools". It noted that some institutions - including St George's Medical School, University of London and the Royal Veterinary College - are switching to a multiple mini-interview. In this, candidates solve problems rather than answer general questions about themselves. Sample tasks cited by the newspaper include breaking the bad news to an elderly neighbour after running over their cat and explaining how to tie shoelaces without using your hands to demonstrate. The tasks seek to assess candidates' empathy and communication skills - although online Telegraph commentators lamented that the process prioritised "brainless chavs" and ignored the fact that "money follows brains, and brains follow genes" and "public school kids are more intelligent".

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