Glowing references

December 24, 1999

As it is the season of goodwill, Whistleblowers has become "Trumpetblowers" for one week only - providing a forum for universities to blow their own trumpets and to celebrate the positive side of higher education.

The funding council's publication this month of the first-ever performance indicators sent a number of university press offices into overdrive. "Wolverhampton excels at providing academic quality and access to all," the university proclaimed in a press release. "The vice-chancellor Professor John Brookes said he was delighted to see national performance indicators that acknowledged universities who are following the government's agenda." Was this the same Professor Brookes who had criticised performance indicators in The THES for their "broad-brush approach"?

But there were many aspects of university life missing from the harsh and competitive rankings of performance indicators - good food, for example. Warwick University fielded an elite team of chefs in the National Inter-University Catering Competition this year and came away with the gold medal for the fourth time in seven years. "It was for the overall balance of the menu," said Graham Crump, the man responsible for the sweet on the winning culinary team. It was the conference centre and banqueting food that won Warwick this accolade, although Mr Crump insists students benefit from the all-round high standard of food. Mr Crump and his colleagues are also very clean, coming away with the competition's Best Hygiene Award, too. Another very reassuring aspect of university life overlooked by the indicators.

And what about robots? The funding council may have ignored them but the viewing public has lapped them up. Martin Smith, head of the mobile robots research unit at the University of East London, braved the limelight to act as one of the judges for the BBC2 television series Robot Wars. Teams make their own robots and are then judged on them. "Some of the robots are extremely impressive," he says.

As this column is all about letting universities shine, the University of Hertfordshire's self-illuminating Christmas tree has to get a mention. Students from the department of biosciences got through to the finals of the Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs scheme this year with their proposal to transfer a light-emitting gene into the trees or to use green fluorescent protein from jellyfish. "We're talking about a green luminescent tree that glows in the dark," said Katy Presland, one of the students. It would do away with potentially dangerous Christmas tree lights. "I'm sure a lot of people would love them, especially the Americans," said Ms Presland.

The Open University was, as ever, full of surprises. John Murray, research fellow in the department of earth sciences, plotted the path of a previously unknown planet in our solar system. The planet is 1,000 times farther from the Sun than Pluto, bigger than Jupiter, and orbiting in the opposite direction to all the other planets.

Not to be outdone, Colin Pillinger of the OU's Planetary Sciences Research Institute won European Space Agency backing for a place on the Mars Express Mission for his Beagle 2.

But back to those performance indicators. Cambridge University shone when it came to turning bad news into good. The university had one of the sector's worst records for recruiting students from state schools and low-participation neighbourhoods. But, looking on the bright side, very few of its affluent students dropped out. "Cambridge University has the lowest drop-out rate of all universities at 1 per cent," said its press release. Cambridge excused its 52 per cent recruitment from state schools - 11 per cent below its benchmark - with the claim that "many other leading research universities showed a much wider gap".

Now that is trumpetblowing at its best.

Want to blow the whistle?

Contact Phil Baty on 0207782 3298 or e-mail him on phil.baty"

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