The week in higher education - 23 October 2014

October 23, 2014
  • Members of the University and College Union have voted to strike over proposed cuts to their pensions. In a ballot involving UCU members in pre-1992 universities, 78 per cent of those who voted said they supported strike action over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme. And 87 per cent who voted said they would back action short of a strike, which could include a marking boycott. The turnout of 45 per cent was the highest in a national higher education ballot since the UCU was formed in 2006, the union said. More talks between the union and Universities UK, representing employers, were scheduled for 22 October, after Times Higher Education went to press. UUK said that it was “disappointed that the UCU is already threatening to affect students with an assessment boycott”. UUK also warned that employers “cannot accept partial performance from staff”, indicating that many institutions may make full-day deductions of pay throughout the period of any marking boycott.
  • A “Mickey Mouse” fellowship might be something you would associate with the CV of a dodgy Eastern European politician. But Taku Komura, reader at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, will be rightly proud of winning this honour after he secured one of eight Royal Society industry fellowships, which will involve him working at Disney Research’s centre in Scotland. The Japanese computer graphics expert’s research will focus on how animated human characters and robots interact on screen, with the aim of streamlining the cumbersome process of designing these sequences. But connecting Disney to a prestigious research post, rather than to a phrase coined to mean a worthless degree, might well be the smartest aspect of the partnership for the US entertainment giant.
  • David Willetts, the former universities and science minister, hit back after an Observer article asked whether England’s universities had been “privatised by stealth”. Mr Willetts, responding in the newspaper on 19 October, deployed one of his favourite anecdotes about start-up universities – a reference to the humble beginnings of University College London in the face of the 19th-century power of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. “The article worried that our policies are ‘marketisation’. Incumbents, protected behind their barriers, always use this argument against the new guys. Coleridge denounced Bentham’s University College London, the first alternative to the Oxbridge monopoly, as a ‘mere lecture bazaar’,” he wrote. Yet Mr Willetts’ old departmental boss, Vince Cable, recently said that the coalition’s moves to allow for-profit colleges greater access to student loans had opened the door to “a lot of dross”. Clearly Mr Cable sees some of the newcomers as more ATM than UCL.
  • Nine months after he was suspended by the University of Warwick, Thomas Docherty is set to be cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation. As Times Higher Education went to press, it emerged that the professor of English and comparative literature – whose suspension has been a high-profile story for months – was to be cleared only weeks after his suspension was lifted and he was allowed to return to Warwick’s campus. It is understood that copies of a tribunal report have been sent to parties involved in the case. The university has yet to comment on the outcome, but Professor Docherty said that he was “looking forward to getting back to teaching, working with students and colleagues, and writing again, as normal”.
  • The seafaring city of Plymouth cannot have seen many vessels missing a captain and first mate. But with its vice-chancellor Wendy Purcell remaining on paid leave after initially being suspended in July, Plymouth University announced on 20 October that Raymond Playford, one of its deputy vice-chancellors, has started a six-month secondment in a part-time government advisory role at Healthcare UK. The university’s governors are expected to make a final decision on Professor Purcell’s future in the coming weeks, so higher education’s equivalent of the Mutiny on the Bounty could be near its end. It remains to be seen whether Professor Purcell, set adrift on the high seas, can stage her own miraculous journey to safety.
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