Chalk Talk: A new start for universities? Oxford dons are not so confident

Academics at Oxford University are planning to debate a motion of no confidence in the Universities Minister David Willetts. The debate, which will be conducted with all due pomp and ceremony at the university's congregation – its "parliament of dons" – is expected to take place within the next fortnight.

The motion was triggered by comments made by Mr Willetts in national newspapers, including The Independent, two weeks ago. He was forced to deny there were plans to allow rich parents to buy places for their children at top universities by paying the overseas rate to get them in. He also suggested that some universities planning to charge the maximum £9,000-a-year tuition fee would either have to cut their prices or offer incentives to fill their places.

Already 177 academics have signed the motion. All 4,000 of the university's academics and senior staff are allowed to take part in the debate. It should be a lively affair, and timely with the Government's White Paper on higher education due out next month. Some critics, however, believe it would have been wiser to have waited until they had seen the White Paper before passing judgment.

* Last week's survey of final-year students' job prospects painted a revealing picture of the modern undergraduate. It showed, for instance, that they are possibly not cut out for jobs as interpreters or with the diplomatic service in a foreign country. Nearly three-quarters of UK students can't speak a foreign language, the annual survey by High Fliers Research revealed. Even at Oxford and Cambridge, the numbers who can are only 29 per cent and 28 per cent respectively.

Surely scrapping compulsory language lessons for 14 to 16-year-olds – as agreed by the last Labour government – was not the way to deal with this?

* A piece I wrote two weeks ago about the unexpected surge of successful state-school applicants to Cambridge university, following its insistence on at least one A* grade, has struck a nerve. The headmaster of a state school in a Spanish village tells me of a similar story in his locality.

He is in direct competition with neighbouring independent schools. Yet, despite the fact his students perform better and achieve higher degree passes, there is still a myth there that private is better.

Don't know whether to laugh or cry. (Actually, I do.)

r.garner@independent.co.uk

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