The week in higher education - 14 November 2013

November 14, 2013
  • Unions have called another nationwide strike for 3 December as part of a pay battle with higher education employers. As on 31 October, the University and College Union, Unite and Unison are all set to take industrial action over a “disparaging” 1 per cent pay offer, but this time they will be joined by the Educational Institute of Scotland. UCU staff are currently working to contract, although it has emerged that two institutions – Newcastle University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David – have warned employees that they could be docked pay if they refuse to work unpaid overtime. However, both universities have insisted that pay would not be deducted unless there had been a “clear breach” of employment contracts.
  • Two dressing-up incidents provided new entries for the “when student humour goes wrong” genre. The University of York’s Conservative Association cancelled its annual fox hunt themed pub crawl, involving men dressed as hunters and women as foxes, after the Vegetarian and Vegan Society encouraged protesters to object using red paint, The Press reported on 8 November. Meanwhile two female students caused consternation when they entered a fancy dress competition at a Chester nightclub. While some might think that reason enough to question their taste, the two University of Chester undergraduates dressed as the Twin Towers being hit by aeroplanes – and won first prize. Amber Langford and Annie Collinge, both 19, “had modelled their costumes on the North and South Tower wreathed in flames and with victims jumping from windows”, the Daily Mail reported on 6 November. The university and Chester Students’ Union said they had “begun an urgent investigation with a view to taking the necessary action”.
  • As the cost of living continues to rise, a ray of financial sunshine has broken through: health secretary Jeremy Hunt could make £17 million from the sale of Hotcourses, the online courses directory he founded 17 years ago. The proposed sale to a private equity firm would value the company at about £35 million, The Guardian reported on 8 November. Mr Hunt stepped down as a director in 2009, but still holds 49 per cent of Hotcourses via a blind trust, which means he has no day-to-day control over his stake, the newspaper said. “One of Hotcourses’ biggest contracts is a deal to run a website for the British Council, promoting courses in the UK,” it added. While home secretary Theresa May cracks down on overseas students, at least someone in the Cabinet understands the economic benefits they bring.
  • The Guardian noted sniffily that Mr Hunt was educated at Charterhouse school and the University of Oxford – the type of background that Sir John Major highlighted in comments about social class. The Daily Telegraph reported on 10 November that the former Conservative prime minister had told party activists that the “upper echelons of power…are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking.” While Sir John blamed the Labour government for the “collapse in social mobility”, his comments “will be seen as a challenge to the Eton-educated [David] Cameron who has faced repeated criticism for surrounding himself with advisers and ministers from a similar background”, the Telegraph said.
  • David Nutt, who was sacked as a government drugs adviser after a policy clash in 2009, is developing a drug that “mimics the effect of alcohol without creating a hangover”, The Daily Telegraph reported on 12 November. Professor Nutt, who is Edmond J. Safra professor of neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, went on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to urge the government to give “an explicit recommendation” in support of the drug to encourage investment in his research. The drug, which can be blocked immediately by an antidote, could reduce alcohol-related illnesses, he argued. “I’ve done the prototype experiments myself. I’ve been inebriated and then it’s been reversed by the antagonist,” said the man once dubbed by the press as “The Nutty Professor”.

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