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Thu 20 Oct – Guardian HE Network – Cambridge University chancellorship and Reading University: first or fail? October 20, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education.
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Cambridge University chancellorship and Reading University: first or fail?

New leadership comes under the spotlight this week as Aaron Porter gives his verdict on Reading’s new vice chancellor and the Cambridge University chancellorship candidates


Brian Blessed

Ahead of Brian Blessed and Abdul Arain, Lord Sainsbury was voted Cambridge University’s new chancellor. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Heading for a First… Reading University and Sir David Bell

This week Reading University announced the appointment of senior civil servant Sir David Bell as its new vice-chancellor. Bell’s career is almost the definition of ‘meteoric rise’. He started as a teacher in Glasgow, went on to become a headteacher, before rising to national prominence as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools and then into the civil service as the permanent secretary in the Department for Education.

Born in Glasgow, reading history and philosophy at his home city’s university, he then went onto obtain a PGCE at Jordanhill College of Education. His direct experience at schools in Glasgow and Essex and as assistant director of Education at Newcastle City Council clearly gives him in a genuine education background. Not to mention his subsequent experience as the chief inspector of schools and then in government.

As universities are increasingly grappling with the implications of the White Paper, and their link up with business, it’s vital that their core purpose as educational establishments is not lost. For those who have met him, Sir David is an impressive individual, with an obvious passion for what education can do to transform an individual’s life.

He strikes me as a man who can breathe new life into Reading University, ensure it is fit for purpose in the 21st century, but without losing sight of why the institution exists. I also can’t help but think, he’s chosen a very wise time to stop working for Michael Gove…

Heading for a Fail… Abdul Arain

Notable previous chancellors of Cambridge University have included Thomas Cromwell, Prince Albert, and Stanley Baldwin, and since 1976 the honour has been bestowed upon the Duke of Edinburgh. Of course while the role is largely ceremonial, cutting ribbons and shaking hands at degree congregations, there is a perception at least that this person is a figure head for the institution. And in some respects, a role model for prospective and current students.

So when an election was called to replace Prince Philip earlier this year, there was a faint hope that the result may deliver something other the usual line up of noble lords, dukes, or relatives of the monarch who generally hold the post. Who knows, perhaps the first woman may have been chosen to break the monotony of man after man since 1246. But given some of the rather ancient rules at Cambridge University, I’ve no idea whether a woman is even allowed to hold the role. Even if they are permitted, 800 years of history suggests the culture won’t permit it yet.

However the line up of candidates, although all men, was at least drawn from a variety of backgrounds. It was made pretty clear, that the preferred choice from the university hierarchy was Lord Sainsbury, the former chair of the supermarket giant and a significant donor to the institution. Up against him were the loud-mouthed actor Brian Blessed, high profile QC Michael Mansfield, and Nariobi-born grocer Abdul Arain. Running a classic protest vote campaign, Arain’s candidacy was two-fold; to show that Cambridge University really is open to people from non-traditional backgrounds, and perhaps more pertinently to him, to highlight the damage a new chain of Sainsburys in the city will do to local stores like his own.

Sadly Arain came last when the results were announced, but he secured a creditable 312 in the final tally. Despite some ill-feeling from a minority toward Lord Sainsbury, in truth he sailed through securing nearly 3000 of the 5888 votes that were cast. By weighing in with more than 50% of the vote in the first round, it didn’t even matter whether it was first past the post, or a more elaborate transferable voting system.

So Cambridge University may not have taken the chance to break with tradition of choosing someone outside the established hierarchy or heaven forbid a woman. But Arain’s candidacy did at least raise a valid debate, if only temporarily.

Thur 11 Aug: First or Fail – Newcastle College Group & New College Durham and Carol Vorderman August 11, 2011

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First or Fail: Newcastle College Group & New College Durham and Carol Vorderman


Carol Vorderman

Could this be Carol Vorderman’s first Fail? Vorderman’s new maths taskforce has launched to little fanfare and some criticism. Photograph: Karla Cote/PA

Aaron Porter gives his verdict on who has had a good week (heading for a first) and who has had a bad week (heading for a fail).

Heading for a First… Newcastle College Group and New College Durham

Both the Newcastle College Group (NCG) and New College Durham got the thumbs up from the Quality Assurance Agency this week to start awarding their own foundation degrees, which is just a step away from full taught degree awarding powers.

In an environment where increasingly discerning prospective students will be pickier than ever before, particularly toward the bulk of institutions that have raced to £9,000 per year, more competition at the lower end of the price spectrum will be welcomed by many students, and, of course, the treasury. Students now face greater competition for both the types of institution on offer, but also a broader range of prices. As for the treasury, it will desperately cling to the hope that new providers from the further education and private sectors will enter to offer degrees significantly below the current average price – otherwise the £1bn blackhole still looms ahead.

NCG’s higher education tuition fees are set at £5,800 from 2012, which is likely to look appealing compared with many institutions that have headed straight for £9,000. Of course, the idea that some students may now feel forced to choose their higher education institution by price may be exactly what the government intended all along, but surely the choice of what and where to study should be based on academic content and the student experience, not a price tag.

Heading for a Fail… Carol Vorderman

She is no longer the numbers whiz on Countdown, or the face of much-maligned debt consolidation company First Plus. In fact, this week Carol Vorderman’s taskforce on mathematics teaching, commissioned by the Conservatives, was greeted with little fanfare, and indeed criticism from some quarters. While other news this week understandably drowned most of the press coverage she may otherwise have anticipated, it was also a lack of credible solutions for improving maths standards in the UK.

Her main recommendations included the introduction of two new GCSEs; one to focus on basic numeracy, and a second to focus on more complex mathematics. She also wanted maths education to be compulsory through to age 18, and for higher education institutions to make greater demands on entry requirements for maths and other STEM subjects. While some in the maths community welcomed the report, those in other disciplines said it failed to make the case for why maths should be given precedence over literacy, IT skills or a language.

So far the recommendation to raise the age of compulsory maths education to 18 has been dismissed by education secretary Michael Gove, but the other recommendations are still under consideration.

Sadly, like so many other commissions, I suspect this will be another that is kicked deep into the long grass. At least if Vorderman were a contestant on Countdown, she’d have got a consolation goodie prize.