What a year of top-ups and downs!

December 19, 2003

Who were the academy's winners and sinners in 2003? Michael North runs through the roll-call

It's the end of the year and what a year for higher education. It started with the furore about top-up fees and is ending in much the same vein, with universities plastered all over the papers. But what will you remember as the high spots of the year? Getting the PowerPoint to work finally, getting geared up for light-touch quality assurance, contemplating the next research assessment exercise? At The THES we have all been going over our best bits and have decided that, in an age when awards are handed out like sweets, we are going to indulge ourselves, no matter what the do-gooders say about fillings and obesity. So here are our nominations. Happy New Year!

BEST DIARY PIECES

* Stephen Hawking advertises his hot-air balloon in Varsity : one careful owner, disabled access.

* Bob Stone , professor of interactive multimedia systems at the University of Birmingham, is made an honorary Cossack for his services to international virtual reality. In a very real presentation ceremony, the professor is beaten with a whip, drinks a huge goblet of vodka, dances with a chorus of Cossack women and swims naked.

MOST PRETENTIOUS BOOK

* Post-modernism for Psychotherapists - A Critical Reader

BOOK WITH NARROWEST AREA OF RESEARCH

* Jewish Women Philosophers of First-Century Alexandria - Philo's "Therapeutae" Reconsidered by Joan E. Taylor.

MOST CUTTING REVIEWS

* Philip Anderson on Susan Greenfield 's Tomorrow's People: "It is very seldom that reading a book for review is really a chore for me. My curiosity even to hear what slant the author may take on familiar material, not to mention my voracity for new facts and ideas, is almost insatiable. I read the backs of cereal boxes at breakfast. But somehow Susan Greenfield's Tomorrow's People was an exception to the rule - I had to grit my teeth and really work at each chapter."

* Winston Fletcher on a book about branding, Brandchild by Martin Lindstrom with Patricia B. Seybold: "To suggest that 'Sound + Sight + Smell + Taste = Brand' is universally applicable is manifest twaddle. What is the sound of Harpic? And do you really want to know the taste? Brandchild is a meretricious lash-up. Give it a miss."

SPAT OF THE YEAR

* Greenfield vs Anderson : The Baroness, famous for her short skirts and red lipstick, hit back at her critics after Nobel laureate Philip Anderson attacked her book. She said: "I don't mind criticism. What I can't live with is if you feel there is a differential (because I am a woman). It says more about them than me... If people constantly carp on about how you look and what you wear, it reinforces the image of science as a male-dominated, nerdy profession." Professor Anderson said he had never heard of Baroness Greenfield before he opened her book.

BEST GOBBLEDEGOOK

* From the Learning and Skills Council circular, Plan Led Funding for FE :"The proposals are made in the context of the funding principles developed by the Council Funding Group and the concept of 'trust relationships' articulated by the Bureaucracy Task Force. They show how specific recommendations in Trust in the Future could be implemented in the context of Success for All and the skills strategy white paper. These proposals also include the first steps in implementing the funding developments envisaged in the Skills Strategy."

* Todd Landman 's department of government at the University of Essex underwent a light-touch quality assurance audit. He wrote: "The language as set out in the Quality Assurance Agency handbook is bland, unexciting and filled with complicated internal referencing codes linking knowledge (A1-An), intellectual and cognitive skills (B1-Bn), practical skills (C1-Cn), and key skills (D1-Dn), even though its purpose is to provide an overview of degree schemes for prospective students, parents and employers."

* Gayatri Spivak : "The proper study of literature may give us entry to the performativity of cultures...(attending to this means thinking about people from other cultures) rather as a reader with imagination ready for the effort of othering."

RED TAPE AWARD

* Learning and Skills Council creates new tier of senior management to cut down bureaucracy.

QUOTES OF THE YEAR

* Charles Clarke : "The medieval concept of scholars seeking truth is not in itself a justification for the state to put money into that. We might... support them as an adornment to our society."

* Alan Johnson : "Charles Clarke and I like to come to events like this as a joint charm offensive - which usually involves me being charming and Charles being offensive."

* Rock singer tells the Leeds Student : "Tony Blair is not even worth calling a ****."

* Terry Eagleton on the end of history and Osama bin Laden: "The obituaries issued for history proved premature. Osama bin Laden had evidently not been reading Francis Fukuyama."

BEST NEWCOMERS TO HE

* Beagle 2 space probe, assembled at the Open University at the start of the year and due to land on Mars on Christmas Day.

* Steven Schwartz , vice-chancellor of Brunel University and head of the fair university admissions task force, who likened the Higher Education Funding Council for England's practice of imposing quotas on student numbers to central planning in communist Cuba.

* Eddie McIntyre , principal of Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies, who in the same year that his former further education college moved into the higher education sector proclaimed his institution was ready to bid for a university title.

BEST GOSSIP/SCANDAL

* The Mail on Sunday reported that philosopher Peter Smith resigned as a fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, amid allegations that he had sex with a series of call girls in his tutorial rooms.

* Robert Ayers , a professor at Nottingham Trent University, lost his job as the UK's only university artistic director after inviting a former lap-dancer to perform a striptease for his students.

MOST UNLIKELY RESEARCH

* George Ricaurte , a US neuroscientist, published research in Science claiming to be clear evidence of the massive health risk posed by ecstasy. Ricaurte's research team later discovered that, owing to a labelling error, the substance they had been administering to monkeys was in fact not MDMA (ecstasy), but methamphetamine (speed).

* Research suggests that plant-eating dinosaurs could have glided like punts across shallow water.

BIGGEST CONTROVERSIES/STORIES OF THE YEAR

* How to meet the £8 billion university funding shortfall and the government's resulting furore about top-up fees.

* Government plans for research selectivity.

* Margaret Hodge in saying that the reason for high dropout rates was that universities ran too many "Mickey Mouse" courses.

* Thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts were pulped by the British Library.

PEOPLE OF THE YEAR

* Colin Pillinger , professor of planetary sciences at the Open University and driving force behind Beagle 2 , who could go down in history if he finds life on Mars.

* Ian Gibson MP for his efforts to make the great and good in science policy thoroughly uncomfortable through probing inquiries via his chairmanship of the House of Commons science and technology select committee.

* John W. Trinkaus , winner of the Ig Nobel prize for literature, who has published 60 papers to prove that many aspects of life are worth an "informal look", including Opening an Attaché Case: An Informal Look .

BEST EXAMPLES OF SPIN

* League tables

* The government for using a Department for Education and Skills report on student poverty and increased debt to defend its fees policy, arguing that students have a relatively lavish lifestyle with mobile phones and so on.

* The Association of University Teachers for saying that academics could lose £17,000 over nine years under a new pay deal. Employers said they would gain £8,900 over the period, and the alarming loss predicted by the AUT would need the approval of... the AUT

CUSHIEST JOB

* Lecturer Barry Blundell : "A November mist leaches colour from the parklands surrounding this 15th-century French chateau. By 9am, logs are blazing in the fireplace by my computer. I log on and examine today's student emails and the bulletin board of three online courses I provide to the University of the Virgin Islands."

MOST LIKELY RESEARCH

* The Association of College 's revelation, after a survey of thousands of students, that teenagers would rather go out than study.

* The European Commission's Joint Research Centre Environment Institute discovery that not only are lit cigarettes sources of pollution but the best way of reducing that pollution is to "remove the pollution at source" - that is, put the cigarette out.

MOST CONTROVERSIAL FEATURES

* Terry Eagleton on postmodernism: "When western cultural theorists were growing more laid back, the collapse of the twin towers was a sign that grand narratives might be over in San Diego but not in Saudi Arabia."

* Daniel Pipes says jihad is a fundamentally martial concept.

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