The week in higher education - 12 December 2013

December 12, 2013
  • Boat Race protester Trenton Oldfield has won his fight to stay in the UK after a judge overturned his deportation order, The Independent reported on 10 December. The 37-year-old Australian, who served six weeks of a six-month jail sentence for disrupting last year’s Varsity Boat Race, had faced separation from his British wife and child because his presence in the UK was deemed “not conducive to the public good”. However, rejecting the claim, Judge Kevin Moore told Oldfield that there was “no doubt to your character and commitment and the value you are to the UK generally”. Among those supporting Mr Oldfield were several Oxbridge dons, who questioned the “draconian” attempt to deport him. “It makes it look like we have a real hang-up about stepping slightly out of line,” said Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the University of Oxford.
  • David Cameron’s old college tutor is offering him private tips on how to run the country, The Daily Telegraph reported on 4 December. The prime minister told an audience at Shanghai University that Vernon Bogdanor – emeritus fellow at Brasenose College, Oxford, where Mr Cameron spent his undergraduate days – emails critiques of his performance, the paper said. “Though I left 25 years ago [he] still sends me emails criticising my work,” Mr Cameron said. Bogdanor, who is now a research professor at King’s College London, has labelled the prime minister as “one of the ablest” students he has taught, but has criticised his former pupil’s desire to scrap the Human Rights Act, calling his stance “confused”.
  • Nobel laureate Peter Higgs would fail to land an academic job today because he is no good at “churning out papers”, the eminent physicist told The Guardian. In an interview published on 7 December, Professor Higgs claimed that no university would employ him today because he was not “productive” enough: he has published fewer than 10 papers since 1964. Saying he was “an embarrassment to the department when they did research assessment exercises”, the physicist said he responded to departmental requests for recent publications with the terse reply, “none”. Speaking en route to Stockholm to collect the Nobel Prize in Physics on 10 December, the 84-year-old said that the University of Edinburgh would have probably sacked him if he had not been nominated for the prize in 1980.
  • Professor Higgs was not the only 2013 Nobel laureate to question the modern-day world of academic publishing. Randy Schekman, professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of California, Berkeley, chose the day of the acceptance ceremony to announce that his lab would no longer publish in “luxury journals” such as Cell, Nature and Science. He wrote in The Guardian on 10 December that the huge career rewards for publishing in such journals led scientists to play to the publications’ scientifically damaging preference for “papers that explore sexy subjects or make challenging claims”. In extreme cases, scientists might even commit research fraud to get published, he added. Professor Schekman is, of course, editor-in-chief of eLife, an open-access journal launched last year to rival Cell, Science and Nature, so his comments may be taken with a pinch of salt. Also, as a Nobel laureate, he is never going to be short of job offers. Although one of his postdoctoral researchers was quoted endorsing his position, others may fear for their future without “luxury” papers on their CVs.
  • Universities are sometimes criticised for their harsh disciplinary measures, but a Saudi institution has taken matters to shocking extremes. According to the Emirates 24/7 news website on 8 December, a Saudi woman received 80 lashes in front of the entire university staff in the northern town of Rafha for assaulting a faculty member. The woman, in her forties, had stormed on to campus to confront the employee because she had also married her husband, the site said. She was sentenced to one month in prison in addition to the public lashing. The Emirates piece quoted a report from the Sharq newspaper, and reprinted its picture of the cruel and unusual punishment.
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