The week in higher education - 30 October 2014

October 30, 2014
  • British secret services spied on Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm for decades, newly released files reveal. MI5 and Special Branch officers tapped the phones and intercepted the letters of the Birkbeck, University of London academic from the 1940s onwards, the Daily Mail reported on 24 October. While the Mail concedes that Hobsbawm, a Communist Party member, did not pass on secrets to the Russians, it points out that he was friendly with those who did – namely British physicist Alan Nunn May, who was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour in 1946 for being a Soviet spy. Yet none of the snooping led to any dirt on Hobsbawm, who is described by a spy in one of the files as a “tireless (and tiresome) organiser of petitions and lost causes”. However, the paper still had a field day by alluding to his friendship with Ed Miliband’s academic father Ralph in its headline: “How the friend of Red Ed’s father hobnobbed with traitors who spied for the Soviets”.
  • The former head porter of Oriel College, Oxford, has quit his post to run as an MP for the UK Independence Party. Former serviceman Kenrick “Dickie” Bird told The Daily Telegraph on 24 October that he left his position because of his “passion for change”. Mr Bird, who aims to win the Banbury seat in north Oxfordshire, “admitted the university has been ‘part of the problem’ with the political process in the past by funnelling public school students straight into Westminster”, the newspaper said. But, he added, that past was now “slowly being eradicated by the type of guy and girl that they’re bringing in to Oxford and Cambridge”.
  • Change is also afoot at the highest level of the university, after Oxford launched the search for a new vice-chancellor on October. The successful candidate will be a visionary leader, with a proven track record at the highest levels of academia and a burning desire to remind politicians that it apparently costs Oxford £16,000 a year to educate each undergraduate. The last bit will (probably) not appear in the job description, but may be seen as providing continuity from Andrew Hamilton, whose seven-year term ends in September 2016. Oxford has performed impressively in league tables under Professor Hamilton – including on vice-chancellor’s remuneration, where Craig Calhoun of the London School of Economics was the only head of a UK institution to outrank Professor Hamilton’s £434,000 package last year.
  • Talking of the perks of being a vice-chancellor, it has emerged that the head of the University of Bedfordshire and the institution’s dean of partnerships, who are in a relationship, racked up a joint travel bill of more than £30,000 in the year to July, according to the Bedford Times and Citizen. Bill Rammell, the former Labour minister who now leads the institution, and Helen Bailey, who was promoted from head of performing arts to executive dean last year, visited partner universities and conferences in Beijing three times and in Miami once, a Freedom of Information request revealed. Each trip lasted three or four days, and all flights were business class. A spokesman for Bedfordshire said that at least one other staff member was also on each trip. He added that travelling business class allowed university staff “to work in flight and immediately on arrival”, ensuring that visits were “short and focused entirely on university business”.
  • A brothel disguised as a “foot massage department” has been uncovered at a Chinese university, The Independent reported on October. The bordello was allegedly based in the Guangxin International Hotel at the Wuchang University of Technology in Wuhan, east China. To buy services from prostitutes, customers would tell the hotel receptionist that they were looking for “Sister Zhou for some healthcare”, and could receive a student discount, according to the Beijing Times. “It is outrageous that this is going on at our school,” said a student whistleblower, who had sought to get a foot massage and was offered “special services”. The hotel was reportedly part of a company chaired by the university’s chancellor, Zhao Zuobin, the paper said. But the university denied that Professor Zhao or any other staff were involved in the running of the hotel or alleged prostitution, adding that the matter had been referred to police for investigation.
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