The week in higher education - 27 March 2014

March 27, 2014
  • It felt as though this was the week the world of front-line politics finally caught up with the stark warnings that have been detailed in these pages for some time – that the £9,000 fee system is unsustainable. Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary, urged ministers to “come clean” on the implications of the “student loan time bomb” after it was revealed last week that, on current estimates, 45 per cent of student loans will not be repaid. That followed a report from London Economics – featured in Times Higher Education last week – that warned that the government was rapidly approaching the “break-even point” at which the new system costs more than the old one of direct grants and lower fees. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, refused to rule out increasing tuition fees beyond £9,000 post-2015, but dismissed worries about the rising loan write-off rate, saying the estimates will tend to “bounce around” depending on earnings forecasts over the next 35 years. Labour’s resurgence of interest in the cost of student loans came as leader Ed Miliband hinted on ITV1’s The Agenda that the party may make a “radical offer” at the next general election on fees. Coincidence?
  • A scientist has attacked the Daily Mail’s “underlying sexism” after it implied that her appearance on Newsnight was only because of her gender and race. Hiranya Peiris, reader in astronomy at University College London and an expert on the study of the cosmic microwave background, was invited on to the BBC Two show to discuss last week’s findings about the origins of the universe alongside The Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock, who is an honorary research associate in UCL’s department of physics and astronomy. But pseudonymous diary columnist Ephraim Hardcastle suggested that the invitation to the women to talk about work by “white, male” American scientists was because the show’s “Guardian-trained editor, Ian Katz, is keen on diversity”. Dr Peiris told The Independent that the comments had caused “a lot of emotional suffering” and undermined women’s efforts, saying Hardcastle had “reduce[d] my career to my gender and skin colour”.
  • Meanwhile, academics from UCL have posted a website criticising the BBC for allegedly failing to challenge the scientific claims of genetic ancestry testing companies. The site, under the banner of UCL’s Molecular and Cultural Evolution Lab, reserves particular ire for Today presenter James Naughtie, whose 2012 interview of his “old friend” Alistair Moffat, who runs one such firm, “failed to make even the most token challenge” and could amount to “the most untruths in four minutes of ‘factual’ BBC programming ever”. Hot on the heels of the BBC’s apology to the London School of Economics for using students as cover for a Panorama report on North Korea, it’s not been a great fortnight for Beeb-university relations.
  • University leaders are sometimes depicted as a humourless bunch, but one is doing his best to dispel this image. University of Northampton vice-chancellor Nick Petford was pictured crowdsurfing across a room at a sports awards evening, winning him the epithet “WolfofNorthampton” from one student who tweeted the unlikely scene, a reference to a similar event in The Wolf of Wall Street, the film about 1990s corporate excess, the Northampton Herald & Post reported on 23 March.
  • The University of Cambridge is continuing to fete the benefactor wife of a Ukrainian oligarch wanted by the FBI, the Daily Mail reported on 24 March. While Dmytro Firtash awaits possible extradition to the US on bribery charges after his arrest in Austria this month, his wife, Lada, was inducted last week as a “companion” of Cambridge’s Guild of Benefactors, a group who have all donated at least £1 million. The ceremony follows donations worth £5.4 million for a Ukrainian studies programme in 2011 from Firtash’s foundation, which is chaired by his wife. Protesters called on the university to “spring clean” its donations policy but it seems happy to look beyond Firtash’s current reputational difficulties and court the wife of a man released on a £105 million bail bond.
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