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Sector News, 28 September - 02 October 2009

How much of tax payers' money should be spent helping students at university? The Independent, 28 September 2009.

The Independent reports on the furor caused by last week's CBI statement that students should be the ones to bear any cuts.  Whilst the National Union of Students and the new universities deplore the statement, the elite Russell Group of universities appear to welcome the ideas encapsulated within the CBI statement.  The Russell Group argument is that unless fees are raised their teaching and research programmes will be seriously affected.

‘You can’t pay people out of thin air’. Education Guardian, 29 September 2009.

Train to Gain has become so popular that the money has run out.   Now employees who were expecting training are disappointed and training organisations are facing the possibility of making their staff redundant.   The Learning and Skills Council (LSC)  is getting the blame.  According to the National Audit Office the quango overspent its Train to Gain budget by £50 million. This has led to widespread dismay as many trainers were encouraged to expand in light of underspends in previous years.

Like Monty Python sketch ... only not funny.  Education Guardian, 29 September 2009.

Comment: David Eastwood, vice chancellor, University of Birmingham.

Universities it seems are playing a “we are poorer than you" game.  It can be heard in the wings that one university is planning 5 per cent cuts only to be trumped by the next university saying they will have to plan for 10 per cent cuts.   As the CBI have said, if we want a global learning society, then planning for cuts in HE could prove disastrous. Funding for teaching in HE is around 1.3 to 1.4 per cent of GDP, below the OECD average and well below that of the US.  Whilst the need to plan for reduction might be prudent, universities would do well not to talk themselves into more cuts than other sectors.

In a vintage year, English wine growers receive £1.6 m education fund.  The Times, 29 September 2009.

English wine growing has expanded so much, that it has run out of people to support it.  Hence, the Government and the European Commission have injected £1.6m for training.   The new classes are to be organised by Plumpton College, East Sussex, which is the only undergraduate college in the country with its own vineyard and winery.

'Radical change' is needed to reassure public on standards.  THE, 1 October 2009.

A report to the Higher Education Funding Council for England recommends a more public facing role for the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA).  To avoid public misconceptions concerning poor quality in HE the report requests that external examiners should be interviewed by inspection teams and universities should give a clear indication of the number of hours they expect students to study.  The QAA could give universities a limited or no confidence judgment if they fail to provide adequate information.  Despite apparent public and parliamentary concern about falling standards, the QAA have come out in favour of keeping the status quo. The main responsibility for academic standards rests with individual institutions, with the watchdog checking their work, which remains "the best and most cost-effective" approach.

The Xbox factor: gaming's role in future assessmentTHE, 1 October 2009.

Patricia Broadfoot, vice-chancellor of the University of Gloucestershire, said computer games could be useful in the tricky area of assessing creativity. "Games are excellent learning tools in that they are interactive and provide rapid feedback, opportunities for extensive practice, engagement with intellectual complexity, emotional involvement and, increasingly, open-ended outcomes that challenge the creativity of the player," she said.

Civic engagement is no 'Cinderella' activity and must become a priority.  THE, 1 October 2009.

Professor John Goddard, emeritus professor of regional development studies at Newcastle University, believes that universities should involve themselves in their local communities to a much larger extent than at present.   He uses Newcastle as an example of where close community liaison increased its local undergraduate number by 87 per cent in ten years.  Professor Goddard objects strongly to the notion that universities should be ivory towers that only a few can aspire to enter. Furthermore, he comments that formula funding should be replaced (in part) by funding some elements by mission.

 Man with two brains’ vision for life under Cameron.  THE.  01 October 2009.

David Willetts, Shadow Universities Secretary, has indicated that a future Tory government would expect universities to take teaching, more seriously.  He has consistently said that if universities want top up fees increasing, they must first show that extra fees will improve student experience.  He added that failing institutions may face a tough time from government.

Lecturers receive bar-code canners to take registers.  THE.  01 October 2009.

In a move condemned by staff, Derby University has asked its lecturers to check in students with a hand-held scanner to monitor attendance.   The university says that the checks demonstrate their concern for student support, maintaining contact and achievement potential.  Additionally, all universities have to keep tabs on overseas students. 

Major articles I this week’s THE:

Because we’re worth it”.  Vanessa Toulmin director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield library, is “Fed up with being a free research resource.   Here she explores how the arts and humanities are creating impact beyond the confines of acadame”.

“But can you do a podcast on it?”.  Hannah Fearn discovers that knowledge transfer is as important to the arts and humanities as it is science.

‘Our fate was in our own hands’. A look at electron accelerators and the difficulties faced by CERN.

 Reach out to pupils who want to care.  TES magazine.  02 October 2009.

For the first time in eight years, none of sociology teacher Natalie Tuohy’s pupils have gone into social work.  They see the work as low-status and something that busybodies do.  The A level pupils, studying sociology, are assigned to a particular job within social care.  They investigate the day to day routines and it’s place in society.  This year the pupils could not find any redeeming factures that would make them want to pursue social work as a career.  Natalie, along with other teachers, say that the Social Care Diploma for 14 to 9 year olds is a better option than other courses in that it covers far more in-depth analysis of social work and it will point out the good work that social services conduct, which the media seem incapable of doing.

Rise in student numbers hits college funding.  TES, FE Focus.  92 October 2009.

The Learning and Skills Council (LSC), have said that colleges will not be reimbursed for enrolling extra teenage students unless they are under considerable financial strain.  This despite an announcement earlier this year that an extra 55,000 places would be funded.   A number of sixth from colleges could be financially embarrassed by the pronouncement.

Tories build FA freedom charter.  TES, FE Focus.  02 October 2009.

That providers are too dependent on government schemes and agencies for funding, is the opinion of David Willetts, Shadow Secretary for Universities and Skills.  He believes that there is a need to change the culture away from one depending upon organisations such as the LSC.  Furthermore, David Willetts has said that what has happened in adult education is a national scandal.   There is scepticism shown by the party for the labour idea of transferring the planning and funding of under 19 education to local authorities.  The Tories also see a need to keep, but reform, Train to Gain.

See also Can the Tories steer FE out of choppy waters”,  comment Alan Thompson FE Focus Editor.

 The Big Question: Should universities change the way they classify degrees? The Independent. 02 October 2009.

University grade inflation, or the perception of it, is a focus of a report published this week by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.  HeFce say that universities should overhaul their degree classification programmes as well as their methods of examining.  The grading system has been under attack from some time, notably from 1977 when Lord Dearing pronounced that the “Honours classification system has outlived its usefulness”.  The paper puts three arguments for reform and three against, namely:

For, grade inflation and dumbing down , the need for students to be able to show what they have done in and out of the classroom and employers need to know more about potential recruits.

Against, the current system is understood, students and parents are suspicious of new-reforms and a summary enables a quick impression to be made of a graduate.