News in brief - 15 August 2013

August 15, 2013

United States
Political squeeze

A major US funding agency will not allocate cash to any new political science research for the remainder of 2013. The National Science Foundation took the decision less than a month before the annual mid-August application deadline. It gave no reason for removing the grant call. Experts in the field are blaming the block on Congress, which earlier this year passed a bill requiring that political science funded by the NSF benefit national security or the economy, Nature reported. “It’s hard to imagine that it’s not a factor in the decision,” said Michael Brintnall, executive director of the American Political Science Association. Henry Farrell, associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said the decision was “somewhere between devastating and crippling”.

Australia
Beware the red tide

Higher education in Australia might not be protected from future regulatory overreach after next month’s election, warned the chairman of the Group of Eight, a coalition of the country’s leading research-intensive institutions. Fred Hilmer, Go8 chair and vice-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, said it was “politically attractive” for governments to promise to cut red tape, The Australian reported. “The reality is they’ve had mechanisms in place to deal with it, and by and large they ignore them,” he said. Professor Hilmer said that legislation underpinning the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency had been exempted from the need for a regulatory impact statement. But Greg Craven, vice-chancellor of Australian Catholic University, who helped to draft the legislation, said the regulator’s intention was not to be heavy-handed.

France
No scarf? No cross? No way

University leaders in France have dismissed a proposal to ban the wearing of religious symbols at institutions of higher education as a “bad idea”. A leaked report from France’s High Council for Integration claimed that “growing tensions in all sectors of university life” were undermining France’s secular values. To counteract that, the report called for a 2004 law prohibiting the wearing of religious symbols such as headscarves and crucifixes in schools to be extended to universities, the news channel France 24 reported. Any such recommendations are likely to face a backlash from university chiefs. Jean-Loup Salzmann, head of France’s Conference of University Presidents, labelled it a “bad idea”. He said: “A university is not a school. Students are adults, and you cannot limit their freedoms. This is a subject that requires calm discussion and certainly not an approach tinted with Islamophobia.”

India
IITs are slipping in esteem

The director of a renowned free educational programme has said that the esteemed Indian Institutes of Technology are losing brand value because the government continues to open more institutes and to offer more places. Anand Kumar created “Super 30”, which each year takes 30 people from deprived areas of society and prepares them for IIT entrance exams. He said the situation was so severe that about 700 spots at India’s leading institutes remained vacant this year: “Instead of increasing the number of seats, they should open colleges with proper infrastructure and teaching faculty with other names like National Institute of Technology. IIT should remain IIT only.”

United States
Online courses count at Cal State

A California university system will allow students to enrol in online classes this autumn, in the latest move by the state’s public institutions to expand online learning and ease a bottleneck of enrolments to popular courses. The programme, devised by the California State University system, will offer 36 fully online classes in high-demand subjects including biology and business finance. Officials hope that offering oversubscribed courses as an online option will help students to graduate faster, the Los Angeles Times reported. The courses will be offered to students via the California State system and will count towards degrees. Cal State emphasised that the classes are not massive open online courses, which can attract thousands of students; each campus will control class size and, in most cases, make sure they have a maximum capacity of 25 to 30 students.

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