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Sector News, 22 - 26 March 2010

Why do so few colleges have active student unions?  Education Guardian, 23 March 2010.

There are around 4.5 million students in further education colleges and yet they have fewer active student unions than universities who have fewer students.  Whilst the Education Act of 1994 made it necessary for all colleges and universities to provide a students’ union, the interpretation of the law has been open to some speculation.  Differing interpretations of the law have led to a variety of students' union models.  Norwich provides six figure funding for its students’ union, and the student officers take time out, on a salary, to represent the college students. Sussex Downs, on the other had, has a part time volunteer as a vice president for its student union.  Those colleges with strong students' unions say that the savings in consultations can run into thousands of pounds.  Reasons given for the poor showing in FE are that students are too young at 16-18 to take the responsibility of running a union, that many students are there as a move towards university and are more interested in university applications than furthering their political careers.

University cuts start to bite.  Education Guardian, 23 March 2010.

The School of Arts and Humanities at King’s College London has caused a world-wide storm by putting its staff at risk of redundancy and stating that staff would have to confirm their commitment to the university's priorities in order to save their jobs. The row has broken out following the publishing of the King’s College restructuring consultation document in which the university has said that it wants to spend more time accessing areas which are more financially viable and where academic priorities correspond to student demand and Hfce led research council agendas.  The move is seen by academics as a threat to their intellectual freedom.  King’s College deny any wrong doing, stating that the document is a consultation document and not a final statement of intent.

Budget windfall for STEM places and spin-offs.  THE, 25 March 2010.

The Chancellor in his budget speech has promised Universities in England an extra £305 million, creating an additional 20,000 student places for the next academic year.  It is expected that these places will be largely in key subjects such as science, technology, engineering and maths.  The Budget also guaranteed a place in education or training for all 16 and 17 year olds, plus a job, work experience or training for everyone aged between 18 and 24. It also promised a higher number of apprenticeships.

 ‘Positive action’, positive results.  THE, 25 March 2010.

A new equality bill presently going through Parliament will make it lawful for an employer faced with candidates who are seen as equal, to choose the candidate from an underrepresented group.  Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, argues that Britain’s universities do not reflect society. The chairman hopes that the new bill will go some way to removing the barriers to people with poorer (financial) backgrounds.

UUK: state-school ‘bias’ does not go far enough.  THE, 25 March 2010.

A row has broken out between the president of Universities UK (UUK) and Geoff Lucas, general secretary of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, who accused the university sector of Eton bashing in the THE last week.  Geoff Lucas refuses to accept evidence that state-school pupils achieve better degrees than private school pupils with the same A levels.  Steve Smith, head of UUK, has accused Mr Lucas of failing to examine primary sources and of relying on assertions that have been refuted.

See also:Hard facts show that contextual admissions are right and fitting”, Opinion, where Steve Smith, president UUK, refutes the claims of Eton bashing and says that state-school ‘bias’ does not go far enough.

Features in this week’s THE:

Career strategies”, John Morgan discusses why the UK’s university administrators believe that their work is undervalued.

Listening for the quiet voices”, Lin Foxhall, professor of Greek archaeology and history, University of Leicester, explains why it is important to study the lives of people traditionally overlooked by historians and archaeologists who tend to focus primarily on high culture.

Heated discussions”, Andrew Montford, who works in scientific publishing, comments that the scandal surrounding the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia suggests a campaign to withhold data from other researchers and to marginalise climate change sceptics.

Tests revamp goes directly to the core.  TES, 26 March 2010.

The Tories review by Sir Richard Skes has recommended that all higher and further education institutions should publish lists on qualifications they accept and prefer.  Excluding English and maths, FE colleges and universities should determine the form and content of qualifications.  Not happy about the existing arrangements for SATS the report recommends that the Government should consider adopting a US-style SAT test.  Sir Richard is unhappy about the modularity of A levels and wishes to move back to a more traditional A level.  Finally the report suggests that an independent commission should revise the curriculum every five or ten years.

See also, Editorial: Is Sir Richard too radical for the Tories?

 A barrage of potential change but little accord and even less detail.  TES, 26 March 2010.

Commentary: William Stewart.

Sir Richard Sykes has recommended that all A levels be redesigned with inputs from universities, a reduction in A level modularity and the possibility for university entrance tests to be run alongside the A level examinations.   There has even been a call to end GCSEs.  Whilst suggesting that school and sixth forms should be able to offer external qualifications (e.g. IGCSE) he also calls for the group checking equivalence to be scrapped.  Hence there would no longer be a comparable measure for schools to base league tables on.  This meets with Sir Richard's approval but not it appears with the approval of Michael Groves who has earlier said that league tables are here to stay if you elect a Conservative government.  Michael Groves also disagrees with the idea that GCSEs should be scrapped.  There remains a considerable amount of discord between the report and the Conservative party.

See also: “Tariff makes awards less vocational, warns Sykes, TES, FE Focus, in which Sir Richards Sykes comments that by attempting to make Diplomas more academic they have finished in no man’s land, neither useful for employers or universities.

Colleges snap at heels of universities for HE grants.  TES, FE Focus, 26 March 2010.

The Association of Colleges has said that average HE funding for colleges will rise by 2.2 per cent compared with the average rise across universities of 0.4 per cent.  There are ten colleges listed as the biggest HE in FE earners, with grants ranging from around £4.4m to 11.5m.

Let demand lead: the task placed in new funding agency’s hands. TES, FE Focus, 26 March 2010.

According to the Skills Funding Agency’s (SFA) chief executive Geoff Russell, the new agency has a balancing act to perform between the needs for a demand led funding system and a Government who will find it hard in a tough economic climate to let go of the reins.   If the funding agency has its way then employers or students will use learning or skills accounts to buy the provision they want and the Government’s planning role will wither away.  Geoff Russell sees the role of regional planning agencies as the key to devising skills strategies. 

See also:Demand-led FE funding system needed, says ALP, in which the Association of Learning Providers (ALP) states that the next government must move away from a planner captive employment and skills system to a more dynamic arrangement driven by employer customers.