News round-up: Strikes, admissions reform – and anger as the ‘over-zealous’ Prevent programme seizes student essays

This week has seen another round of strikes by academics, while UK universities come under pressure to reform the admissions process


UK ‘could only join Horizon Europe with transition extension

Times Higher Education, 21/02/2020, John Morgan

The UK will only be able to join the European Union’s next research programme if its government seeks an extension to its transition agreement with the bloc, as reaching a wider deal is impossible in a year, according to a former European commissioner.

Karel De Gucht, a former commissioner for trade who is now president of the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), argued that with “level playing field” obligations designed to stop the UK undercutting the EU in fields such as workers’ rights and environmental regulations set to be the “battlefield” in the wider talks, there was no chance of reaching a free trade agreement by the end of 2020.


UCL to ban intimate relationships between staff and their students

The Guardian, 20/02/2020, David Batty and Rachel Hall

University College London has become the first Russell Group university to introduce a ban on romantic and sexual relationships between lecturers and their students.

UCL said the personal relationships policy would protect against potential abuses of power and conflicts of interest.


Students’ university essays reported to police under ‘overzealous’ government counter-terror measures

Independent, 20/02/2020, Eleanor Busby

Students have had their university essays investigated by police and faced questioning by staff under government counter-terror measures, The Independent can reveal.

Campaigners and experts warn that free speech is being stifled on campus and trust destroyed because of the “overzealous” Prevent programme, with students and lecturers becoming “suspects and informants”.


ERC president ‘optimistic’ UK will stay in ‘irreplaceable’ fund

Times Higher Education, 20/02/2020, John Morgan

The UK gains benefits from the European Research Council that “cannot be replaced”, but there is “good reason to be optimistic” about the nation staying part of the programme despite Brexit, according to the funder’s new president.

The UK has been “the number one [nation] in terms of funding received” since the ERC was established in 2007, Mauro Ferrari told Times Higher Education after taking office last month. “But the real benefit is bigger than that,” he added.


London calling: half of foreign applicants target capital

Times Higher Education, 20/02/2020, Chris Havergal

Foreign students are nearly twice as likely to apply to at least one university in London as UK-domiciled applicants, according to Ucas data.

A report published by the admissions service on 20 February says that 54.1 per cent of applicants from the European Union and beyond applied to at least one provider in the capital in 2019, compared to 27.8 per cent of domestic students.


Thousands of university workers strike across UK

The Guardian, 20/02/2020, Sally Weale and Laith Al-Khalaf

University workers have formed picket lines on campuses across the UK on the first day of the “biggest-ever wave of strikes” over higher education pay, pensions and working conditions.

The University and College Union (UCU) reported that support from staff and students remained solid, despite the fact it will be the third time university staff have gone on strike in the last three years – most recently just before Christmas.


Only ten universities saw a majority of union members vote for strikes, analysis finds

Daily Telegraph, 20/02/2020, Camilla Turner and Ashley Kirk

Only ten British universities saw a majority of their union members vote in favour of strike action, a new analysis has found.

This week lecturers at 74 universities began a 14 day walkout, which will see roughly a million students’ courses disrupted.


Call to scrap ‘elitist’ Oxford application fee

BBC, 19/02/2020, Sean Coughlan

Academics at Oxford University want to scrap a £75 fee required to apply for postgraduate courses – arguing it is an “elitist” financial barrier.

The fee is not refundable – and an internal email suggests Oxford receives £2m from applications per year, mostly from those who have been rejected.


Oxford could remove Homer and Virgil from compulsory Classics syllabus amid diversity drive

Daily Telegraph, 19/02/2020, Camilla Turner

Oxford could remove Homer and Virgil from the  compulsory Classics syllabus as part of a diversity drive, it has emerged.

Homer’s epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are considered central works of ancient Greek literature, while Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the most revered poems in Latin literature.


Cambridge Extinction Rebellion protests: Six charged with criminal damage

BBC, 19/02/2020, Anon

Three people have been charged with criminal damage after climate activists dug up the lawn of a Cambridge University college.

The area outside Trinity College was targeted by Extinction Rebellion protesters on Monday.


University strikes: Students could face larger class sizes if staff get their demands, employers claim

Independent, 19/02/2020, Eleanor Busby and Gina Gambetta

Students could face larger class sizes and fewer lecturers if staff get their demands over pensions, universities have claimed ahead of a fresh wave of walkouts this week.

Institutions are already “at the edge” of what they can afford and any increases to staff pay awards would place even greater financial pressures on struggling universities, vice-chancellors say.


Aberdeen told to repay £119K over ex-head’s ‘gardening leave’

Times Higher Education, 18/02/2020, Jack Grove

The University of Aberdeen has been ordered to repay more than £100,000 of taxpayers’ money after a review found it had broken financial rules by authorising payments worth £342,000 to its retiring former principal.

In a damning report published on 19 February, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) says that Aberdeen had breached financial memorandum requirements in its handling of the departure of Sir Ian Diamond, who retired as principal in July 2018. He was appointed the UK’s national statistician in October 2019 and heads the UK National Statistics Authority.



Cambridge University don wrote erotic fiction about students

BBC, 18/02/2020, Rianna Croxford

A Cambridge University academic who was accused of sexual harassment published erotic fiction about students the year complaints were made against him.

Dr Peter Hutchinson quit teaching at Trinity Hall in 2015 following an internal investigation into his conduct.


University employers say union demands on pay are unaffordable

The Guardian, 18/02/2020, Sally Weale

Union demands on pensions, pay and conditions are unaffordable and will put vulnerable institutions that are already in deficit at even greater risk, university employers have said.

Speaking before strike action planned for this week on 74 campuses across the UK, the employers said many institutions that had already reported shortfalls were being asked to go beyond what they could afford to meet union demands.

UK universities face pressure to reform admissions process

The Guardian, 17/02/2020, Richard Adams

British universities are taking a hard look at changes to their admissions procedures for undergraduates, after evidence that significant numbers of disadvantaged and ethnic minority students are dissatisfied with the current system.A survey of university applicants commissioned by vice-chancellors and seen by the Guardian found that many black and other ethnic minority candidates, as well as those from families without a history of studying in higher education, complained of obstacles during their applications, including poor careers advice and a time-consuming process.


Universities fear loss of policy focus as ministerial roles split

Times Higher Education, 17/02/2020, Ellie Bothwell

Splitting ministerial responsibility for universities and science within the UK government could make it harder for higher education institutions to get a fair hearing in Whitehall, experts have warned.

Chippenham MP Michelle Donelan was named universities minister in the Department for Education last week, after Boris Johnson divided the brief from science for the first time since 2010. Amanda Solloway was expected to take on the science post within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, although her role was yet to be officially confirmed at the time of writing.


More schools turn to Oxbridge entry experts

The Times, 17/02/2020, Rosemary Bennett

A rising number of schools are appointing full-time experts to guide pupils through the applications process for Oxford, Cambridge and other top universities, according to a report.

St Paul’s School in London, the top-performing private boys’ school, has 11 such experts. Brampton Manor Academy, the state secondary in Newham, east London, 51 of whose pupils got Oxbridge offers this year, has five — all of them Oxbridge graduates.


How ‘soft bigotry’ of teachers’ low expectations is stopping poor pupils going to university

Independent, 17/02/2020, Eleanor Busby

Children from poor backgrounds are being denied places at top universities by the “soft bigotry of low expectations” among teachers, according to a report.

Some schools are failing to encourage pupils from deprived backgrounds to apply to the most selective universities as they do not think they will cope, a think tank has suggested.


Universities ease English language tests for Chinese students

Sunday Times, 16/02/2020, Sian Griffiths and Tom Calver

Vice-chancellors are understood to be in talks with the Home Office about the possibility of waiving the requirement for Chinese students to pass English language tests before they start degree courses in Britain amid growing fears that the coronavirus epidemic could put a £1bn hole in university finances.

Thousands of Chinese students are booked on English proficiency courses in the coming months, both in the UK and in China. They are required to pass the course, which lasts six to 10 weeks, before they start UK degrees in the autumn.


State pupils flock to Oxford college — and degree results soar

Sunday Times, 16/02/2020, Sian Griffiths

The first head of an Oxford college to be educated at a comprehensive school has said the university could take up to 90% of its students from state schools — a change that would see the proportion of privately educated students cut by three-quarters.

Helen Mountfield QC, who was appointed 18 months ago as the principal of Mansfield College, said: “I would like to see [the proportion] to be broadly representative of the society from which people come. That would be about 90%.”


Medical schools are ‘failing to deal with racism’ towards students

Independent, 14/02/2020, Eleanor Busby

Medical schools in the UK are failing to deal with racism and racial harassment directed at black and ethnic minority students, an investigation suggests.

Only half of medical schools collect data on students’ complaints about racial abuse, according to freedom of information requests obtained by the British Medical Journal (BMJ).


Imperial’s Simone Buitendijk named as next Leeds v-c

Times Higher Education, 14/02/2020, Anna McKie

The University of Leeds has appointed Simone Buitendijk, who is currently vice-provost (education) at Imperial College London, as its next vice-chancellor.

Professor Buitendijk will take the reins on 1 September, when current leader Sir Alan Langlands steps down.


Michelle Donelan named universities minister as science split off

Times Higher Education, 13/02/2020, Chris Havergal

Michelle Donelan has been named as universities minister in the UK government, as Boris Johnson split the brief from science for the first time since 2010.

The Chippenham MP was named as minister of state in the Department of Education in the prime minister’s post-Brexit reshuffle. Although departmental responsibilities were yet to be officially confirmed, Times Higher Education understands that she will take on responsibility for universities.


Oxford Brookes doing worse than University of Oxford on state school admissions

The Guardian, 13/02/2020, Richard Adams

An Oxford university is struggling to meet targets for widening participation, according to the latest set of official statistics – but it’s not the university you might think.

Figures published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal that Oxford Brookes University admitted a higher proportion of privately educated undergraduates than most other UK universities, and more than some highly selective institutions such as the London School of Economics.


Private schools students have increased every year at two Russell Group universities

Daily Telegraph, 13/02/2020, Camilla Turner

Private schools students have increased every year at two Russell Group universities despite a diversity drive, official figures show.

Edinburgh and Liverpool universities have seen the proportion of state educated undergraduates fall each year for the past four years, according to data from the Higher Education Statistical Agency (Hesa).


Oxford don suspended ‘without explanation’, colleagues claim as they accuse college of acting as ‘law unto itself’

Daily Telegraph, 12/02/2020, Camilla Turner and Tony Diver

A senior Oxford don has been suspended for over six months “without explanation”, her colleagues claim as they accuse the college of acting as a “law unto itself”.

The academic has been banned from stepping foot in university premises and from speaking to fellow academics since last summer, The Daily Telegraph understands.


Universities spent more than £1 million using NDAs to silence student grievances including sexual assault

Daily Telegraph, 12/02/2020, Camilla Turner

Universities have spent more than £1 million using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence student grievances including sexual assault, figures show.

Since 2016, a third of Britain’s universities have used confidentiality clauses when resolving student complaints, according to new data obtained under freedom of information laws by the BBC.


Universities should be ranked by ‘wellbeing’ and not just earnings, say vice-chancellors 

Daily Telegraph, 11/02/2020, Camilla Turner

Universities should not be ranked by graduate earnings because millennials are more interested in wellbeing than salaries, a vice-chancellor has said.

Prof Julia Buckingham, head of Brunel University London and president of Universities UK, will use a speech on Tuesday to accuse ministers of “lacking nuance” when considering the value of higher education.


University exams should ditch ‘irrelevant’ pen and paper,  Government funded tech firm says

Daily Telegraph, 10/02/2020, Camilla Turner

University exams should ditch “irrelevant” pen and paper, a Government funded technology firm has said.

Students can express themselves in a more “natural” way by using technology, according to Jisc which provides the secure network that is used by all British universities.


Young mentor secures 60 Oxbridge offers for deprived pupils

The Times, 10/02/2020, Rosemary Bennett

An Oxford student who set up a mentoring scheme using £200 saved from his maintenance loan has just helped to secure 60 offers from Oxbridge for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Joe Seddon set up Access Oxbridge at his parents’ kitchen table in Morley, West Yorkshire, in 2018 shortly after graduating.


Ucas to stop advertising private loans to students

The Guardian, 07/02/2020, Richard Adams

Ucas, the university admissions service, has agreed to stop advertising private loans to students following pressure from the consumer finance expert Martin Lewis and a rebuke from the Charity Commission.

Lewis and his organisation Money Saving Expert criticised Ucas last year as “tainted” for marketing commercial loans to students as young as 18 through its mailing lists, after it carried advertising for a private provider that offered loans of up to £40,000.