The week in higher education - 10 April 2014

April 10, 2014
  • The compelling saga of how Queen Mary University of London (no comma, remember) should be abbreviated has reached a conclusion. In an email to staff on 4 April, principal Simon Gaskell said he had ditched plans to shorten QMUL to QML. The college originally announced the change on the grounds that three letters were easier to remember than four. However, after what Professor Gaskell describes as “expressions of disquiet”, the change was suspended while a consultation was held. Since a “clear majority” favour the status quo, Professor Gaskell has now issued a pardon to the condemned U. He also notes that the debate “has proved unusual in its ability to stir emotions”. He takes that as “an indication of the affection and loyalty of colleagues to this institution”, though other interpretations of what it says about academic priorities are also available.
  • A major speech by David Willetts last week contained such a flurry of slightly undercooked announcements that maybe he is about to abandon the kitchen to a new chef. On the menu were dishes that sounded tasty, but left you wondering about the ingredients – a research excellence framework for the whole world (assessed by who?), improving job prospects for state-educated graduates (universities’ remit?) and a dish best served cold – more HE for underserved areas such as East Anglia, and, er, Yeovil. But could this last wish provide a clue to his potential successor? Being the Tory MP for South West Norfolk, junior education minister Elizabeth Truss is no stranger to improving provision in rural areas. Indeed, she was a supporter of plans for a comprehensive school in her area to offer degrees. So is this a bid to leave the apprentice a bubbling broth?
  • Not content with spending the past 25 years presiding over a bunch of overpaid prima donnas, former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has decided to try his hand with another lot. The Times reported on 5 April that Sir Alex has taken up a position in executive education at Harvard Business School. It is unclear whether Sir Alex’s pedagogic style – which makes liberal use of “hairdryers” even in the absence of wet hair – has been approved by the Higher Education Academy. However, Harvard looks forward to his contributing to its graduates’ ability to “make a profound difference in the world”. It must be hoping that they listen more closely than Sir Alex’s successor, David Moyes, who – to put it in management-speak – has made a right pig’s ear of it so far.
  • Scientific research is often depicted as a masochistic pursuit, with endless hours of toil often resulting in nothing but backache and eye strain. But a PhD student has taken the self-inflicted pain to a whole new level by subjecting himself to a systematic course of bee stings in an attempt to find out which parts of the body hurt most. The Independent on Sunday reported on 6 April that Michael Smith of Cornell University came up with the idea after he and his supervisor speculated that the testicles would be the most painful place to be stung. Bravely dropping his trousers for science, he subjected his scrotum and penis – plus 23 other bodily locations – to three stings each, spread over 38 days. Surprisingly, the nostril and upper lip were the most painful places, but the media buzz was all about that lower hanging fruit.
  • Students have leapt to the defence of the “Wolf of Northampton” (for the uninitiated: University of Northampton vice-chancellor Nick Petford) after his alcohol-fuelled antics at a sports awards evening garnered national media attention. In an open letter, the Northampton branch of the University and College Union said many staff and students had found it “disturbing” that his “laddish” behaviour – which included crowdsurfing – had been celebrated when a heavy drinking culture among male students was not “victimless”. One Twitter endorsement for the Wolf – from a student describing himself as a “certified lashman and rugby fanatic” – probably didn’t help his cause. But many more students suggested that the union’s reaction had been over the top. The debate will surely rage on, but comparing Petford to pill-popping, hedonistic, stockbroking fraudster Jordan Belfort in the first place was probably a stretch, even for a vice-chancellor.
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