14 - 21 February 2013 - The week in higher education

A sideways look at the week’s big stories

February 21, 2013
  • Niall Ferguson, Lawrence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University, this week politely and reasonably countered the arguments of those who disagree with him. Not really - in a less surprising development, the TV historian started a catty academic spat when he endorsed Michael Gove’s vision of history teaching in the new national curriculum. Writing in The Guardian on 15 February, Professor Ferguson tackled the education secretary’s critics, including Richard J. Evans, Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, whom he described as the author of “rather dry” works on Nazi Germany and accused of “almost wilful ignorance of - or indifference to - the parlous state of historical knowledge among young Britons”. Unlike him, Professor Ferguson said, “I have written and presented popular history.” Professor Evans responded with a letter to the newspaper on 19 February. His books had “sold more than a quarter of a million copies in English and been published in many other languages”, Professor Evans said. “In any case, I’d rather have a ‘dry’ style than follow Ferguson in writing articles that ape the sneering populism of a Daily Mail leader.”
  • David Willetts’ hopes that the world will fall into line with the UK in preferring gold to green open access have been dealt another blow. A bill has been introduced into the US Congress that would require all large funding agencies to adopt a green embargo, it was reported on 14 February. The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act would require all papers describing publicly funded research to be freely available in a repository within six months of publication. The UK universities and science minister had hoped that the requirement for UK institutions to pay to publish their own research and to access that from abroad would disappear once the rest of the world followed his lead and adopted gold mandates.
  • Universities across the UK issued students with disciplinary and administrative fines totalling more than £550,000 last year. Data released under the Freedom of Information Act showed that fines were dished out for offences such as smoking, drunkenness and unauthorised parties, The Guardian reported on 16 February. “Hitting a member of staff” landed one student with a slap on the wrist in the form of a £50 fine. Downing College, Cambridge, breezily admitted to using fines to fund the “annual staff outing”. Other offences that resulted in disciplinary action included “keeping chickens” and “stealing loaves of bread”, which sounds as if students have regressed to the lifestyle of medieval peasants.
  • Sections of higher education often lament that they are under attack from the government - but geologists taking flak from the work and pensions secretary is a new one. Iain Duncan Smith was responding to Cait Reilly, a University of Birmingham geology graduate who successfully challenged the government in court after being made to work unpaid in Poundland while claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance. Mr Duncan Smith told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on 17 February: “The next time somebody goes in - those smart people who say there’s something wrong with this - they go into their supermarket, ask themselves this simple question: when they can’t find the food they want on the shelves, who is more important - them, the geologist, or the person who stacked the shelves?” Geology undergraduates: if you want to study a continental shelf, work at Aldi.
  • The future of the Higher Education Policy Institute looks rosy after it nearly quadrupled the number of subscribing university partners to 75 with a recruitment drive, it was announced on 19 February. Bahram Bekhradnia, the institute’s director, said the partners were helping to ensure that Hepi “can continue to play its important role as a critical friend to the sector”. The news will no doubt be welcomed by David Willetts, who is among the institute’s biggest fans. Mr Willetts grumbled last year in the Commons that Hepi’s report on a public funding shortfall in the new loans system was “an eccentric interpretation of the evidence” - only for the government to revise its cost estimates upwards this year in keeping with one of Hepi’s predictions.

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