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Sector News, 30 May - 3 June 2011

The Manchester College faces fresh allegations The Guardian, 31 May 2011

A whistleblower inside Wetherby Young offender institution near Leeds has made allegations about The Manchester College, the country’s largest FE college and major provider of prisoner education, receiving public money to which it is not entitled. Crispin Blunt, the prisons minister, has asked the Young People's Learning Agency to examine accusations that The Manchester College may have been paid for non-existent courses at Wetherby YOI. In January further education minister John Hayes ordered an investigation into the college’s affairs at reading YOI. Mr Hayes is witholding the findings of this report until any possible investigation into Wetherby. Reading East MP Rob Wilson was sent a letter of complaint and other documents from a whistleblower at Wetherby.

Not so much deregulation of HE, more dismantling of the foundations The Guardian, 31 May 2011

Higher education minister David Willetts has said he aims to de-regulate higher education. But though there may be increased market competition, there will still be plenty of regulation and control, argues Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University. Prof Brown writes that the overall thrust is to increase competition and students will be purchasers of courses, with greater information available on what they will receive. But the institutions will be more controlled, with the new higher education authority setting basic programme content requirements.

Asylum seekers barred from university The Guardian, 31 May 2011

This feature focuses on the new situation for asylum seekers who want to go to university. In the past, while a person’s application for asylum had still not been decided he or she was treated as a home student, eligible for home fees and was able to receive a loan. But since February young people who have not been granted asylum but have been given discretionary leave to stay in the UK because it is not considered safe for them to return to their home countries are being treated as overseas students, forced to pay higher overseas fees and have no access to grants or loans. Most young people in this situation are in local authority care so have no way of paying for their education. The article features the case study of a young man from Eritrea who came to the UK as a child and now has a 2:1 from South Bank University, a well-paid job and ambitions to study further. Kamena Dorling, manager of the Migrant Children's Project at the Children's Legal Centre, says young people will be cast into limbo at a crucial time in their lives.

British universities may lose world-class status The Guardian, 31 May 2011

Jonathan Wolff, professor of philosophy at University College London, says government policies are threatening the dominance in Europe of British universities. He says that the UK used to have 29 universities in the top 200 in world rankings but questions whether this will last. Cash helping lubricate the system has gone, and the government getting tough on immigration has implications for international staff recruitment.

One front not enough: let's fight a total war THE, 2 June 2011

Universities are facing a summer of industrial action, including disrupted admissions, after members of the sector's biggest union stepped up their fight over pensions and pay. Delegates at the University and College Union’s annual congress in Harrogate hardened the union’s stance by voting for action on several fronts. The union will hold a fresh ballot of members in traditional – pre-1992- universities for sustained industrial action over cuts to their pensions under the Universities Superannuation Scheme. The motion said they would target “such areas as admissions, assessments and examinations for the next academic year". Delegates also agreed that UCU members in post-1992 universities, whose pensions are provided by the public Teachers' Pension Scheme, should join with public sector unions in a strike on 30 June.

BPP write-down raises penetrative questions THE, 2 June 2011

Doubts are being cast over the potential for huge US commercial providers to successfully enter the UK degree market after a major player again downgraded its near-term forecasts for growth in the sector. A financial report filed earlier this year by BPP's parent company Apollo Group shows that $220 million (£134 million) was taken off the value of the UK's only for-profit degree-awarding institution due to pessimism about the market's prospects. Mark Brenner, senior vice-president of external affairs at Apollo Group, insisted that BPP remained "absolutely" at the core of its long-term plans in the UK and continental Europe, adding that it was "incredibly optimistic" about BPP's prospects.

Manchester Met rejects exam-standards criticism THE, 2 June 2011

Manchester Metropolitan University has said that it will "take all means to defend itself" over allegations of low standards on an exam. A student complained to the university about the foundation year economics test in February. Of the 30 questions in the test, 13 were identical to questions in a practice paper, and the student said virtually all the remaining questions were similar. The university “strongly refutes” it set identical or near identical tests, but did say “The evidence indicated that one of the economics foundation test papers was very similar to the practice paper. Although this approach may be an accepted form of preparation in some areas of pedagogy, particularly at level three (A level or foundation), this will be under review." The economics test formed a small part of the mark for the foundation year, where an overall pass is needed to move on to the full degree.

Marketing can benefit from a touch of all that jazz THE, 2 June 2011

Matthew Reisz reports on the unusual teaching techniques of Noel Dennis, principal lecturer in marketing and recruitment at Teeside University, who has used his skills and experience in trumpet playing in his work. Through a workshop titled Jazz: A Creative Approach to Business he takes a jazz quintet into companies and offers a tailored consultancy service based on the premise that the arts can help to foster creativity and improvisation. He said some of the core issues come down to questions of "teamwork, collaboration and communication".

New scheme offers hope in the uncertain world of postdoctoral despair THE, 2 June 2011

The University of Birmingham has launched a Fellowship scheme this week which is looking for 50 postdoctoral researchers to be the “next generation of research leaders”. The university is looking for candidates across all fields, though it has identified two dozen priority areas which range from 20th century music to high-energy physics. It has said that the five-year Fellowships will lead to permanent academic posts, something rarely guaranteed by such schemes, offering job security to early career researchers. Professor Tickell said if a large number of successful applicants came with external funding Birmingham would consider increasing the number of Fellowships available.

Diverse motions: uncertain ratios and attacks on standing snout-to-snout THE, 2 June 2011

John Morgan reports on the diverse range of motions at the University and College Union congress , which covered worries over student-to-staff ratios, vice-chancellors standing "snout-to-snout in the trough" against their employees, and a bid to annul the general election result (this one was defeated). Several motions committed the union to carrying out research on grass-roots professional concerns including the research profiling of individual academics, and job insecurity for fixed-contract staff.

Battle to regain respect is vital THE, 2 June 2011

The new president of the University and College Union, Terry Hoad, warns that academics are being treated as "cogs in an economic machine" and wants to combat "the taking away of professional respect". Terry, a Fellow of St Peter's College, Oxford and a tutor in English language and medieval literature, was among the UCU representatives threatened with potentially ruinous legal costs by the Universities Superannuation Scheme earlier this year during the union's battle with the employers over pensions. He said increased workloads, stresses of the job, increased insecurity and loss of professional respect meant HE and FE had less appeal as careers.

No fixed address THE, 2 June 2011

This feature by Paul Jump looks at the growth in the number of postdoctoral researchers, which means increased competition in academic careers and that a postdoctoral position is no longer a passport to a research post for life. He asks what can be done for early career scientists looking for a lab where they can have a lasting career.

Tara Brabazon: Just-in-case learning, just in time THE, 2 June 2011

In her final article for Times Higher Education, Tara Brabazon looks at a speech by the aptly-named Jill McDonald, president of McDonald’s UK, who stated that as four out of 10 UK graduates are now overqualified for their jobs more young people should go straight into the workforce from school rather than accumulating debt for “unnecessary” degrees. Tara argues that nothing learned is ever wasted, and that a university education must increase the employability of graduates.

THE, The Arts, 2 June

In Object Lessons in New Shapes, ceramicist and scholar Edmund de Waal argues for combining museum collections with recent works. He has recently specialised in “interventions” in existing collections. In the film review, Duncan Wu, Professor of English at Georgetown University, watches Potiche, starring Catherine Deneuve, Gerard Depardieu and Fabrice Luchini, and finds humour, irony and charm in a camped-up tale of a 1970s trophy wife’s empowerment. The film is released in the Uk on 17 June. Gary Day, principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University, reviews the TV programme All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, Adam Curtis’s three-part investigation into politics, commerce and art, and concludes computers have not liberated us but locked us in a corporate capitalist world.

A report has shown that a multi-million pound qualifications framework designed to promote bite-sized learning is failing to give students "meaningful opportunities" to gain credits and transfer between courses. Ofqual concluded that although the qualifications and credit framework (QCF) had potential benefits there was no significant demand for the flexible transfer of credits and raised doubts about the benefits of the scheme. Mark Dawe, chief executive of exam board OCR called for “marked improvements” and said the design spec had been faulty. The FE Focus Editorial – Nice idea, shame about the packaging – also looks at this subject.

College chooses EMA aid over new buildings TES, FE Focus, 3 June 2011

Redbridge College in East London is scrapping plans for new classrooms it badly needs to offer support to students who will lose out when the education maintenance allowance (EMA) is scrapped. The college is surrounded by some of the most deprived areas of the capital and is to receive just £80,000 to pass on to its neediest students under the new scheme. It has decided to set aside £265,000 from its own funding allocation to ensure that all students who would have been eligible for the EMA still receive support. New classrooms for science and ESOl will now not go ahead.

Union rejects fee hike U-turn and votes to boycott IfL  TES, FE Focus, 3 June 2011

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) have voted to boycott the Institute for Learning despite promising talks with the professional body of lower fees. Union members at the FE sector conference still voted to encourage lecturers to refuse to renew their IfL membership. Members rejected the IfL's claims that it offered "unique and valuable benefits" for lecturers, such as registering the 30 hours a year of compulsory continuing professional development (CPD) and setting professional standards. They instead branded the institute "a burden on the sector".

Are colleges mastering the financial balancing act? TES, FE Focus, 3 June 2011

FE Focus has commissioned an analysis of college accounts by W3 Advisory, a consultancy offering advice to college on finance and governance, and found that many colleges have already taken action to improve their financial standing. This seems to show that they are in better shape than their funding body feared. A report by Joseph Lee says that the LSC commissioned a report which said about 50 colleges were “struggling” and at risk of merger or closure and 5o more were “vulnerable”. The SFA said this year there are 15 rated financially inadequate and this could rise to the mid-20s. W3 found that colleges on average reported an operating surplus of £300,000 last year after two years of deficits. The spending on pay has fallen from 65.7 per cent of budget in 2008/9 to 63.9 per cent now, and cash balances last year increased by 30 per cent. But W3 said with cuts to government funding colleges would need to reduce costs by about 3 percent, meaning years of further cuts to come.