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Sector News, 16 - 20 February 2009

Exam standards body unsure how to prevent dumbing-down.  Sunday Telegraph, 15 February 2009.

Ofqual chairwoman Kathleen Tattersall has admitted that there was no clear picture of how to maintain standards when new style exams are brought in this summer.  It is not clear how fairness for the brightest pupils who do not need to resit will be obtained or how accusations dumbing-down can be avoided, because students have several attempts to pass.

Courses in tanning 'worth the same as A-level maths' in school league tables. Daily Telegraph, 16 February 2009.

The Government has relaxed the rules to allow schools and colleges to count practical qualifications obtained by students along with A-Levels and GCSEs in their league rankings.

“It means that a merit in an ITEC diploma in "tanning treatments” (beauty) is equivalent to an A grade in one of the six units that make up an A-level in a subject such as maths”.

‘Paying college fees is the last thing on their minds’. Education Guardian, 17 February 2009.

A financial crisis, which has nothing to do with the credit crunch, is hitting colleges of further education.  A number of colleges have already expressed fears that they may have to make staff redundant.  The fault lies with the Government, according to David Collins, president of the Association of Colleges (AoC).  Funding for under 19s will come via local authorities under the auspices of the Department for Children, Schools and Families.  For those over 19, funding is acquired from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.  Both Government departments have a demand led system in which estimates of future students in each category bring the initial funding.  Neither department will countenance funding being transferred from one area to another, thus removing flexibility from colleges. Demand led systems are notoriously inaccurate and many colleges have overestimated the demand, which will inevitably lead to a claw back of funds.

The week in higher education.  THE, 19 February 2009. (No link)

There are one or two stories of interest from the THE’s own news review:

  • “The Government has been slammed for increasing international students’ visa fees without consulting universities.
  • A Guardian report that white well-off middle class families will exert a stranglehold over top universities has upset a few Vice Chancellors.
  • Ofqual have admitted that it does not know how to stop examinations getting easier. (Reported above).

Hefce report warns over lack of funds for teaching.  THE, 19 February 2009.

A report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) has warned that the quality of English higher education is at real risk because of lack of funding.  In one university first year contact time fell from 524 hours to 320 hours in 2007-08.  The report warns that existing staff to student ratios are not sustainable, that some students have complained about library space and the state of teaching buildings. Public funding per student fell by 40% during the 1990s.  In addition the UK invests a lower proportion of its GDP in higher education than many of its competitors.  The result is that universities have developed coping strategies which are not conducive to quality teaching.

See also leader “Get serious about teaching”; opinion “What price excellence?”, by Geoffrey Crossick, Warden of Goldsmiths, University of London and Chair of the reporting group and the feature “No apples for teachers”.

Lift fees cap to help sector, Denham told. THE, 19 February 2009.

Universities are suggesting that they risk bankruptcy because the fees debate has been left to drift until after the next election.  Sir John Chisholm, chairman of the Medical Research Council and the defence technology company QinetiQ, says that lifting the cap of student fees while offering incentives to business to increase its funding will provide universities with greater economic freedom.  The recommendations are made in a report for the universities Secretary, John Denham and come just after Adrian Smith, the Government’s director general for science and research warned that political inertia over fees is a serious issue.  Whilst Sir John admits that it would be wrong to turn universities into “corporate lookalikes”, he extols the virtues of competition and cites the success of the competitive regime of university research.

Adult learners halved in 2 years.  TES, FE Focus, 20 February 2009.

Official Government figures released on December 18, show a decline of 38% in the number of adults studying courses below level 2.  Over the last two years there has been a decline in adult learners of around 50%.   Niace says that there are some 1.4 million fewer adult learners today than in 2004.

Apprenticeships begin to slip as the economy takes a slide.  TES, FE Focus, 20 February 2009.

Government targets of 500,000 apprentices by 2020 looks increasingly under threat as the “credit crunch” bites.   Early figures indicate a fall of between 7% and 12% in the numbers of teenagers starting apprenticeships, compared to this time last year. In some sectors the downturn has been dramatic, construction for example has seen the number of apprentices fall by 30%, more than 6,000 places, this academic year. In contrast, FE Colleges have made a pledge to treble the number of apprentices to 1,500 by next year.

See also: “Apprentices: today’s cuts, tomorrow’s loss”.

Why the professor called 14-19 diplomas a vocational ‘tease’.  TES. FE Focus, 20 February 2009.

Lorna Unwin, professor of vocational education at London University’s Institute of Education, described 14-19 diplomas “as an educational “tease”, masquerading as vocational qualifications when they are sufficiently academic to satisfy the needs of higher education”.  Professor Unwin, comments that  Diplomas have contradictory outcomes in that the purport to be vocational in order to engage disaffected young people, or those who are not suited to academic study, whilst promising an open door to higher education.