The week in higher education

September 5, 2013

Universities are always trying to show that they provide a unique “student experience”. When students pay up to £730 a month for a room without a view save for a brick wall, mission accomplished. A new 350-room accommodation block for University College London on Caledonian Road, North London has been awarded the Carbuncle Cup for worst building of the year by Building Design magazine. The floor levels of the building are out of step with an older, listed facade that had to be retained: as a result, “more than half of the street-facing bedrooms look straight on to the brick wall, only one metre away”, The Guardian reported on 30 August. A planning inspector gave the go-ahead to the Black Hole of Caledonian Road on the grounds that “due to intensive daytime activities taking place at the university campus”, the rooms’ main function would be for sleeping.

The Duchess of Cambridge switched her choice of university to St Andrews and took a gap year to ensure she met Prince William there, it has been claimed. “It had previously been thought a coincidence that the pair met at St Andrews,” said the Daily Mail on 2 September, showing a touching innocence that it had hitherto concealed. With her AAB grades, Kate had a place at the University of Edinburgh to start in 2000 but gave it up and took a gap year in Italy, reapplying to the University of St Andrews for 2001 after William’s place there became known, says a new book, Kate: The Future Queen, by royal journalist Katie Nicholl. The duchess should be commended for pioneering the Ucas system of adjustment for high-grade students, years before it officially came into being. She showed that ambitious students can trade up in search of higher status once their grades are in, to seek lucrative offers from desperate institutions needing fresh blood to survive.

Michael Gove clasped the Russell Group to his bosom as he lamented the failings of higher education, it was reported on 2 September. The education secretary wrote to the group of large research-intensive universities, as well as the Royal societies representing the sciences, in a letter seen by the Financial Times. “Some universities refrain from spelling out the level of maths knowledge and skill required for some of their courses because they wish to maximise the number of applicants,” Mr Gove said, enigmatically. “They are, however, depressing the number of students who then pursue maths…in school.” If the Russell Group wanted to reply by saying something unflattering about Les Ebdon, the director of fair access, Mr Gove wouldn’t hold it against them.

Rock stars, actors, presidents and prime ministers were among the 1,000 mourners at the funeral of Nobel prize-winning poet and respected academic Seamus Heaney. The professor of poetry at the University of Oxford from 1989 to 1994, who also taught at Harvard University and his alma mater Queen’s University Belfast, was remembered as “a great democrat” who could mix with kings, presidents and the ordinary folk of his native County Derry, said Monsignor Brendan Devlin, who led the service in Dublin on 2 September, The Guardian reported. Paul Muldoon, also a former Oxford poetry professor, praised the “bounteous, bouncy and con brio” farmer’s son, who died in hospital in Dublin aged 74. Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary had earlier led tributes to their “friend”, who the former US president described as “our finest poet of the rhythms of ordinary lives”.

The University of Sheffield is one of the big winners in the fight for top-performing A-level students after increasing its intake by 900 students, The Independent reported on 3 September. With institutions able to recruit unlimited numbers of students achieving ABB or better, Sheffield will admit a total of 5,500 students this autumn – more than making up for 2012’s shortfall, the paper said. University College London has increased its acceptances by 650, which is likely to lead to an extra 450 students, while the University of Essex is expanding its intake by between 250 and 300. However, many are still recruiting with just a few weeks until the start of term, including the universities of Liverpool, Chester and Leicester.

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