The week in higher education – 17 December 2015

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the national press

December 17, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (17 December 2015)

The Russell Group has called for universities to be made exempt from Freedom of Information laws, Press Gazette reported on 8 December. The group of research-intensive universities made a submission to the Independent Commission on Freedom of Information, charged with reviewing a law looked on with disfavour by David Cameron. The Russell Group said that as private higher education providers are not subject to FoI, this left “established providers at a significant disadvantage”. The alternative solution – making private providers in receipt of public funds subject to FoI – was not mentioned. But “critically”, the Russell Group continued, a university exemption is needed as “universities are not public bodies”. Working out the value of all the buildings built at Russell Group universities with public money, and all the public funds received by the institutions, may take more than an FoI request.

Following Donald Trump’s call for Muslims to be barred from entering the US, Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen announced on 9 December it would revoke the honorary DBA it awarded him in 2010. The university said that the candidate for the Republican presidential nomination had “made a number of statements that are wholly incompatible with the ethos and values of the university”. Mr Trump responded by writing in Aberdeen’s Press and Journal on 10 December that if Robert Gordon and Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish first minister who stripped him of his role as a business ambassador for Scotland, “were going to do this, they should have informed me prior to my major investment in this £200 million development”, meaning the Turnberry golf resort. Given that Mr Trump made the Turnberry investment in 2014, it would have taken remarkable foresight from Robert Gordon and Ms Sturgeon to predict that he would go on to say something totally stupid the following year. Or perhaps not.

Whatever the opposite is of Christmas cheer, Theresa May brought it by the bucketload with her plans to penalise universities with high rates of international students who “overstay” their visas. The aim of the home secretary’s plan would be that “slower and stricter checks” on visa applications “would be carried out on applicants wanting visas for courses at universities with high numbers of overstayers”, London’s Evening Standard reported on 10 December. This followed swiftly after George Osborne’s appearance at the Treasury select committee earlier this month, at which he said that Ms May’s plans to toughen English language requirements for overseas students were not government policy and questioned the inclusion of students in net migration figures. How gratifying to see the most senior politicians in the land grappling with overseas student policy – as a pawn in their race for the Conservative leadership.

Vince Cable had some worrying reflections on his time as business secretary in an interview with the Institute for Government, one of a series published online last week as “Ministers Reflect”. The former Liberal Democrat MP said that at the time of the emergency budget in 2010, “I was faced with making decisions on things and places I had never heard of.” Mr Cable continued that he had “absolutely no understanding of the arcane public accounting concepts” used at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. He also said: “One of the reasons we got into trouble over tuition fees was the mind-boggling complexity of the subject…I gradually understood it, but by then we’d already made the key decisions, which were probably wrong.” Mr Cable’s comments were refreshingly candid while also utterly terrifying.

Social mobility “tsar” Alan Milburn was set to “pick a major fight with Oxbridge” this week over its failure to admit more state-educated pupils, The Observer reported on 13 December. The hostilities are due to commence on 17 December when the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, headed by Mr Milburn, will “name and shame the worst Oxford and Cambridge colleges” for state school acceptances in its annual report, the paper said. About two-fifths of Oxbridge’s intake is still from independent schools, despite the proportion of state school pupils increasing by 6 per cent over the past decade, the report will say. The commission will call for the greater use of contextual data in university admissions to increase the numbers of state school pupils entering Oxbridge and other highly selective universities, the paper added.

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