The week in higher education - 20 November 2014

November 20, 2014

Matt Taylor from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission must have thought he’d been dropped on a comet given the column inches he commanded last week. In just days, he went from being feted as the next Brian Cox to making an emotional apology for wearing a shirt sporting images of semi-naked women. “Shirtstorm”, as it was dubbed on Twitter, was the perfect vehicle for a row over sexism in science v political correctness. “I don’t care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing,” was one view expressed on The Verge online tech network. Among the anti-PC lobby was Boris Johnson, the London mayor. In The Daily Telegraph on 17 November, he compared Dr Taylor’s sartorial choice to Kim Kardashian (“a heroine and idol to some members of my family”) choosing to “bust out all over the place”, asking: “What are we all – a bunch of Islamist maniacs who think any representation of the human form is an offence against God?” The poor Philae module, destined to orbit the Sun for some time on Comet 67P, may need to adjust its own attire if it wants more attention.

A report by (choose one)

▢ the Higher Education Commission;
▢ the Higher Education Policy Institute;
▢ MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee;
▢ the National Union of Students has warned that the coalition government’s £9,000 fees system is
▢ “financially unsustainable”;
▢ “creating a black hole in the public finances”.

If the above options are used to create a higher education headline each week, it would not be far from the truth, such is the regularity of such stories. This week’s critique came from the Higher Education Commission, a self-described “independent body made up of leaders from the education sector, the business community and the three major political parties”. It warned on 18 November that the government was getting “the worst of both worlds” – financing the system by writing off graduate debt but getting no credit for it. It concluded: “Introducing market forces to a sector that does not operate as a market puts the financial sustainability of the sector at risk; the commission recommends retreating from this notion.”

Higher education has given the Liberal Democrats no end of grief, so they may look on their £950,000 gift from a former University of Cambridge lecturer as joyous recompense. George Watson, an English academic who had stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal MP and who died last August after a fall, threw the party a “financial lifeline” by leaving it what is believed to be “the largest bequest to a political party in the UK”, The Daily Telegraph reported on 14 November. A good use for the money might be found in Cambridge itself, where the city’s Lib Dem MP – Julian Huppert, yet another Cambridge lecturer – faces a close battle to fend off Labour at the next election.

Elsewhere at Cambridge, a finance officer has been accused of stealing £286,000 from Pembroke College to bankroll an addiction to gambling websites, the Daily Mail reported on 17 November. Highlighting how the alleged crime may have taken place “under the nose” of Sir Richard Dearlove, the college master and former chief of MI6, the newspaper quoted a statement from the college saying that a member of staff had been suspended in January and subsequently dismissed. A spokeswoman for Cambridgeshire Police said that a 41-year-old woman from Cambridge had been charged with two counts of fraud by abuse of position and a third of false accounting. She will appear at the city’s magistrates’ court on 1 December.

Tory MPs critical of the government’s immigration policy usually complain that it is too lax in a bid to stop voters drifting to the UK Independence Party. But paying scant heed to the impending Rochester and Strood by-election on 20 November, Mark Field is calling for a debate that does not “dance to Ukip’s tune”. On the ConservativeHome website on 16 November, the Cities of London and Westminster MP warns that discussion has been allowed “to morph inadvertently into a crackdown on the flow of international talent into our universities”. Of course, having an 11,000-plus majority in a constituency fairly unthreatened by Nigel Farage’s insurgency does tend to help.

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