The week in higher education - 11 December 2014

December 11, 2014
  • After the saga over the suspension and reinstatement of Thomas Docherty and controversy over the use of allegedly “simplistic” metrics to choose academics for redundancy, the University of Warwick could have done with a spell of peace and goodwill. Instead, its advent calendar window for 3 December carried the image of West Midlands police officers bearing Tasers, CS spray and more negative publicity. Police were called to a protest at the campus by the Warwick for Free Education group – after what the university said was an assault on a member of security staff. Video footage showed an officer apparently using CS spray on one protester, while police said a Taser was drawn as a “visible and audible” warning. Oliver Sprague, arms control director at Amnesty International UK, said the footage raised “serious concerns about whether the police acted heavy-handedly and seriously endangered people at the scene”, The Guardian reported on 4 December.
  • To the list of people who wish the University of Leicester had left Richard III resting in peace beneath a Leicester car park, add an influential cohort: the House of Windsor. An analysis published in Nature Communications this week looked at DNA samples from descendants of the Plantagenets and Tudors, which should have matched Y chromosomes extracted from Richard’s bones. But none did, meaning that “the present Queen may not be descended from John of Gaunt and Edward III, the lineage on which the Tudor claim to the throne originated”, The Guardian reported on 3 December.
  • Chancellor George Osborne has made a lot of noise recently about boosting the economy of the North of England. In a June speech he noted that the largest research institute in Europe – the Francis Crick Institute – was being built in London. “What’s the Crick of the North going to be?” he asked. The answer came in last week’s Autumn Statement: it will be a £235 million centre for advanced materials. In his speech, Mr Osborne also announced that it will be based at the University of Manchester with “satellites” at the universities of Leeds, Liverpool and Sheffield. It was left to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to point out in a press briefing that it will also have nodes at Imperial College London and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Well, they are all (just about) north of Eton.
  • Vice-chancellors in jail: not just the daydream of their disgruntled staff but a vision of the future under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill. “Vice-chancellors face being jailed if they fail to implement ministerial orders to deal with extremists on campus,” The Times reported on 4 December. That was its account of an appearance before Parliament’s human rights committee by James Brokenshire, the immigration minister, who warned that vice-chancellors could be in contempt of court if they refused to obey legal orders on tackling extremism. He reportedly said academics “needed to report students if they had concerns that they were becoming withdrawn, reserved or showed ‘other personality traits’ ”.
  • Governance rows seem to have become 2014’s must-have accessory. First it was Plymouth University, and this week it was claimed in The Sunday Times that the UK’s first private university, Buckingham, is engaged in a “bitter war” involving its former vice-chancellor Terence Kealey and Robert Vanderplank, its chairman of council. It was reported on 7 December that Dr Vanderplank commissioned an employment lawyer to investigate various complaints by seven members of staff against Professor Kealey, who left in July. According to The Sunday Times, Rebecca Tuck, a barrister, produced a summary report in August that although not reaching conclusions, found there were “plausible complaints which would have needed to be addressed had the VC remained in post”, including allegations of what she termed “erratic management”. Professor Kealey – who has dismissed the allegations as untrue – claimed that the complaints had been coordinated by a member of staff who has “subsequently been dismissed for theft and lying”. The paper reported suggestions there was now a move to force Dr Vanderplank to step down. The acting vice-chancellor, Alistair Alcock, said his predecessor had left “entirely of his own accord” and to pursue research interests.
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