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In the news: 25 November 2016

Thousands take to streets to march in defence of education

Thousands of students, staff and members of the public took to the streets on a cold, but mercifully dry, Saturday last weekend as part of the biggest education demonstration in years. Marching through central London the noisy procession spelt out opposition to a raft of government policies that risk doing serious harm to education in this country.

The Guardian said protestors were worried about government plans for an "ideologically led market experiment" that would open up UK higher education to the likes of Trump University and leave students facing escalating fees.

The Independent and BBC led with UCU general secretary Sally Hunt's speech to the rally in Westminster at the end of the march. Sally called on Theresa May to "show some humanity, do the decent thing and stop using EU staff and students as pawns in Brexit negotiations".

Further evidence of the problems of casualisation

The fallout from the Guardian and UCU's front page expose of the high levels of casualisation continued this week as the paper printed letters from people confirming the extent of the problem. Sally Hunt was among those who wrote in saying that "the UK's academic reputation has been built on an employment model that legitimates the exploitation of staff".

One writer suggested the Guardian should use percentages of academics precariously employed as a new factor when calculating the rankings in its university guide. Others detailed the tactics universities employ to avoid properly supporting staff and money spent on senior salaries or building projects.

Yesterday, branches up and down the country hosted meetings, workshops and stalls to highlight the problem of insecure working as part of a busy UCU anti-casualisation day of action.

Third reading of controversial higher education bill

The controversial Higher Education and Research Bill had its third reading in the House of Commons on Monday. All amendments from opposition parties that went to a vote were rejected as MPs voted in favour of the bill, which will now be debated in full in the Lords on 6 December.

Leading the way with amendments was former NUS president Wes Streeting who had tabled over 30 proposed changes at the start of the bill's parliamentary life. This week he drew attention to UCU's work on casualisation as he expressed concerns that without decent working conditions, universities would fail to recruit and retain good staff, which would impact on the student experience.

The Mirror focused its attention on Streeting's efforts to bring in changes dubbed the "Lewis Amendments" after money saving expert Martin Lewis, who says that changes to student loan repayments are unfair and barely legal. He argues that millions were "sold a lie" when former chancellor George Osborne retrospectively ditched a promise to raise their repayment thresholds from April 2017.

Writing in the Telegraph, Streeting said the change is a terrible precedent that undermines trust in the student finance system and trust in politics as a whole. He argues that banks wouldn't get away with mis-selling on this scale and neither should the government.

Meanwhile, the Guardian said that one of the most controversial parts of the bill - the Teaching Excellence Framework - could be at risk after only six of the 20 English Russell Group universities said they would definitely take part in the exercise. Four confirmed they were debating whether to boycott. The rest declined to comment.

And it is not only universities that could undermine the TEF. Because, from 2018, the ratings will determine which institutions will be allowed to raise fees, NUS will be coordinating a national boycott of the National Student Survey unless the government drops its plans for the TEF and the rise in fees.

Loans to replace tuition fee grant in student finance shake-up in Wales

Welsh students will no longer receive a tuition fee grant to help with their tuition fees as part of a student finance shake-up. The new rules, set to come in in 2018/19, would mean students have to take out loans like their English counterparts to cover their full tuition fees. Currently the student pays the first £3,900 of annual fees and the government covers the rest (up to £5,100).

The BBC reported that all students will get £1,000 a year before a means-tested grant to help with living costs. But it will be less generous to those from better off families than Prof Sir Ian Diamond's review recommended as students from households earning more than £59,200 now - not £80,000 - will only be eligible for the basic £1,000.

Calls to remove barriers for international students

UCU repeated its call for government to support universities and remove students from net migration statistics on Thursday. UCU general secretary Sally Hunt went head-to-head in a debate with Peter Bone MP on Sky News over the government's controversial party conference announcement on plans to limit international student recruitment to 'high-quality' courses and institutions. Sally said that international students should not be classed as migrants and that, instead of putting up barriers, we should be celebrating the contribution they make to our colleges and universities.

Autumn statement confirms £2bn boost to technology research

Wednesday's autumn statement confirmed an extra £2bn annual funding for technology research by 2021, to be distributed by the new body UK Research and Investment. First announced by the prime minister earlier in the week, the funding will support an 'Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund' as well as work to increase the UK's research capacity. Times Higher Education reported that the extra funding represents a 20% increase in the UK's research and development spending.

There were few other announcements for post-16 education in the statement, but the chancellor did confirm that departmental spending will remain the same for the next year, and that plans for devolution of skills funding to London will move ahead later this parliament.

Universities' green rankings published

On Tuesday the Guardian reported that although UK universities are helping lead the world on environmental research, only a quarter are on track to meet their carbon reduction targets by 2020. Teams leading environmental initiatives are being cut and sustainability strategies have not been renewed, according to the results of the 2016 People & Planet University League.

Lack of government support for public sector sustainability is blamed for the stalling of energy-saving schemes. It is the fourth year that the league - ranking institutions by environmental and ethical performance - has recorded fewer universities on course to meet their legally binding target of reducing emissions by 43% from 2005 levels by 2020. Nottingham Trent University is top of table and praised for opening its first carbon negative building.

Crazy professors exposed by crazy website

A new website is asking for help in identifying "crazy radical professors" on campus. Thanks to Professor Watchlist, students can now "expose and document" professors who "discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom".

However, academics have also joined the hunt, submitting their own suggestions for deviant professors worthy of further investigation. Their tongue-in-cheek submissions have been shared on Twitter, using the hashtag #trollprofwatchlist and Times Higher Education has pulled together some of their favourite suggestions including:

·         Indiana Jones (who is "clearly biased against white fascist groups" owing to his killing of Nazis)

·         Third Rock from the Sun's Richard Solomon ("illegal alien, probably an international spy and security risk")

·         Hogwarts' Professor Snape (who "killed Dumbledore")

·         Doctor Who character Professor River Song (who "killed a man" and "has Time Lord DNA").

Last updated: 25 November 2016