That was the year that was

January 1, 2009

What were the high points of 2008 for academic leaders and politicians? Inventive use of courgettes, 'coming out' as a Brummie and Robert Plant were among the more unusual. But Obamamania, career highs and campus achievements also played their part

Vice-chancellor, London South Bank University

I am left with one enduring memory; the Times headline of 13 October: "Banks nationalised"! Exactly 25 years ago, Michael Foot's 1983 general election manifesto, which included proposals to control the banks and their activities, was dismissed as the "longest suicide note in British political history". Time for a serious reappraisal?

In September, the first five 14-to-19 diplomas were launched amid a cacophony of ill-informed criticism. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority recently ran a moving reception where some of the staff and students demonstrated, through their enthusiasm and vibrancy, why the applied learning of the diplomas will work so well for thousands of young people for whom the current offering is just not good enough.

The young award-winning jazz pianist and composer Gwilym Simcock, a product of Chetham's School and the Royal Academy of Music, produced a superb inaugural album, Perception, and I was lucky enough to hear his stunning performance at the 606 Club. This was a wonderful example of the marriage of academic training and real-life practice.

As I sat in the stand at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium to witness Wales' stunning Grand Slam victory in March, who could have expected the revival to continue with such flair?

Lecturer in nursing, University of Salford

One extremely rewarding experience was in January, when I was in Mukdahan in Thailand visiting Aids-affected children that my company, Contraception Education, sponsors.

We went out walking, swimming, picnicking, dancing and singing karaoke with the workers and the children and had such a happy time together. I was also able to take part in an Aids-awareness session, and I have a brilliant photo of the students using courgettes as condom demonstrators!

I entered a brand-new phase in my personal life in August when I became a grandmother to Poppy. The new relationship feels like falling in love all over again.

In September, I visited the reproductive and sexual health research team at the World Health Organisation in Geneva and presented my sex-education learning materials to the United Nations Population Fund.

Higher Education Minister

A major highlight has got to be the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States.

His victory has the power to inspire young people, including many students, to believe in the power of politics to bring progressive change.

Education is one of the keys to achieving social mobility and has had a big impact on my own life. I am tremendously excited to have been promoted to Minister of State for Higher Education and to have been given the opportunity to promote fair access to university for young people from all walks of life, including those who, like me, grew up in circumstances where going to university was not a "given".

Another highlight is that the Zeitgeist of ethics and sustainability is now finally replacing greed and consumption as the order of the day.

And, of course, another high point was Spurs beating Chelsea to win the League Cup at Wembley.

Chair, Russell Group; provost, UCL

I was delighted at University College London's outstanding results in the research assessment exercise. There's a shared feeling of real accomplishment across the campus, with colleagues taking great pleasure in high peaks of performance in areas as diverse as economics, architecture, law, clinical medicine and philosophy.

Every year, our student music society produces a full opera, always one that has rarely been performed. This year it was Edouard Lalo's Fiesque. It's impressive that students of a university that doesn't have a music department produce such consistently high-quality performances.

Becoming a member of the board of the Higher Education Funding Council for England is a daunting challenge. It is the constitutional bulwark between universities and their government paymasters, and its role in upholding our values and autonomy has never been more important.

Two international visits with the Prime Minister as part of a high-level business delegation: it reflects a pretty fundamental change in government perceptions of the economic and cultural importance of British universities that higher education should have loomed so large on the agenda for the various meetings.

I've quickly discovered why two chainsaws are essential for managing the woods at our home.

You need the second one in order to be able to rescue the first one when it gets completely stuck in the tree.

Ah, the thrill of the noise and the smell of the two-stroke engine.

Chair, Million+; vice-chancellor, University of Bedfordshire

We slayed the myth about "Mickey Mouse" degrees with the production of the Million+ Creative Futures report, which showed that creative universities and creative industries have delivered sustainable employment, encouraged entrepreneurship and have been key drivers in revitalising cities and regions.

I saw the delighted faces of some 3,000 graduates at our University of Bedfordshire graduation ceremonies and knew that lives have been transformed here.

I hosted a fundraising dinner to celebrate 100 years of teaching at our Luton campus and having our £70 million-plus plans to redevelop the Luton campus approved.

For once, I was in the auditorium rather than on the stage at a graduation ceremony (to see my daughter awarded her degree in medicine) and then returned to the University of Plymouth to be awarded an honorary doctorate.

The University of Bedfordshire organised the hugely popular and successful B:Fest, which was Luton's first arts festival.

Head of college, Canterbury, University for the Creative Arts

We celebrated the grant of our university title, a testament to all the staff who worked so hard to achieve it. Furthermore, I gained a post in the new university where I can now add the word DADA after my name (dean of art, design and architecture).

I realised that after only ten months of practice, as opposed to ten years, my 22-month-old daughter Anna Schoenleber-Wood will soon speak better German than me - and has already acquired considerable ball control. I view these attributes with wonder, and promise not to ask her to practise her translation with the phrase "they think it's all over".

I gained my fifth-degree black belt in kung fu and watched my wife kick-box her way through eight rounds of sparring to achieve her kung fu brown belt without even a hint of losing her temper or shouting "it is now", when it was all over.

I felt unadulterated, genuine delight in receiving a warm, empathetic, personal letter from the Prince of Wales, thanking me for my plein-air watercolour of the grand Cedar of Lebanon at (his Gloucestershire home) Highgrove, which, sadly, had to be felled due to disease. This could be construed as further evidence of the fact that I am 50, secretly enjoy painting trees and might even have softened my position on the dissolution of the monarchy.

I shed tears watching the tears of Jesse Jackson at the election of Barack Obama.

Chair, 1994 Group; president-elect, Universities UK; vice-chancellor, University of Exeter

The Government now sees universities as central to economic development and is looking to them to play a major role in recovering from the recession.

They are economic powerhouses for the regions they inhabit and for UK plc as a whole. Exeter is good for a £300 million annual spend in the local economy, and in the New Year we'll embark on £250 million worth of investment.

Presidency of Universities UK is a special thing because it results from the votes of the people you respect most.

Helping Government to understand the difference between widening participation and fair access is a major step forward. Fair access affects a relatively small number of people - as few as 3,000 a year, according to the Sutton Trust - yet gets the most headlines. There are things we can do to improve access, but the much bigger problem is widening participation and underachievement in the 11-to-14 age group.

Lastly, a high point was seeing Robert Plant and Alison Krauss perform at Cardiff International Arena.

Shadow Universities Secretary

The Havant and Waterlooville versus Liverpool football match in January saw the Havant part-timers, ranked 100-1 outsiders to win, score just eight minutes into the game and maintain their lead for half an hour against the 2005 Champions League winners. The Havant team included men who spend most of their time being, variously, a builder, a gas engineer, a bin man, a trainee cabbie and a teacher, and they still managed to give the Scousers a run for their money.

The geek in me had his moment during my visit to the Royal Society in October, when I was thrilled to find myself holding in my hand the original manuscript of Principia Mathematica and the first edition of On the Origin of Species.

One of the perks of the job is frequent chance encounters with researchers engaging in fascinating study across the country's educational institutions.

Particularly memorable were Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester, the geneticist who fathered the DNA fingerprint, John Charmley at the University of East Anglia, a historian of the Conservative Party, and John Dupre, the philosopher of Darwinism at the University of Exeter.

The Conservative Party Conference in September was held in Birmingham for the first time since the (Second World) War. I came out as a Brummie, which was strangely liberating.

President, Universities UK; principal, King's College London

In January, I accompanied the Prime Minister on his "business" tour of Beijing, Shanghai and Delhi. We fortified ourselves with bacon butties on the plane, accustomed ourselves alarmingly easily to motorcade travel, and promoted the UK university sector to our receptive hosts.

In July, I introduced a fashion show at King's College London that featured students of both sexes and all schools of study modelling the elegant graduation gowns designed by Dame Vivienne Westwood for the college's use of its new degree-awarding powers.

In August, during a family summer holiday in New England, I spent a night in a guesthouse surrounded by (loud) frogs and wild turkeys. Later in the same trip, the natural world intruded far more ominously as we dodged a tropical storm while visiting Florida.

In November, the election of Barack Obama provided the culmination of the unusually intense British fascination this year with the American electoral process: a source of wonder and pleasure to an uprooted American.

Also in November, a conference on higher education at the University of Virginia provided the opportunity to explore the early 19th-century buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson. It's impossible to be negative about universities in such a setting!

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