The week in higher education - 5 June 2014

June 5, 2014
  • “As we say in science, England couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.” This is a sentence that few would ever have expected to have come from one of the UK’s most eminent and famous scientists. But that was exactly the conclusion of Stephen Hawking after he spent a month devising a formula to predict the England football team’s chances of success at the World Cup in Brazil. In his calculations, Professor Hawking allowed for factors such as the heat and humidity, the advantages of England’s red kit and likely formations. But the involvement of one of cosmology’s most important theorists in a project commissioned by a bookmaker, Paddy Power, left some fellow academics feeling sick as a parrot. Peter Etchells, lecturer in biological psychology at Bath Spa University, wrote on The Guardian website that seeing his childhood hero take part in such a PR stunt “was like finding out that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, but an order of magnitude worse”.
  • TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp has called on girls to shun university in favour of having children and getting on the property ladder. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph on 1 June, the Location, Location, Location star said that society had “not been honest enough with women” about fertility, which “falls off a cliff when you’re 35”. Ms Allsopp, 42, who has two sons and two stepsons, said that if she had a daughter, she would tell her to “start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit – I’ll help you, let’s get you into a flat”. “Then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you’re ,” she added. The comments have been condemned by teachers as patronising. Helen Fraser, chief executive of the Girls’ Day School Trust, called them a “throwback to the 1950s”. She told The Guardian on 2 June: “Girls who leave university at 22 should not be told by anybody that they have to decide between a career or a relationship and children.”
  • As Times Higher Education reported last month, the animal testing debate has come a long way in recent years as scientists try to foster a more mature discussion through more openness on the issue. Doing little to help was the Daily Mirror, which on 2 June splashed on news of “horror tests on kittens” conducted at University College London. Its use of “news” stretches the definition of the word somewhat as the tests – which UCL said involved adult cats that were fully anaesthetised throughout – were conducted more than 12 years ago. But this did not prevent the article quoting a campaigner comparing the experiments to torture – alongside pictures of tests on cats that had nothing to do with the UCL research. UCL stressed that it was “no longer necessary to use cats as the model for this type of work”, but such coverage must cause despair to researchers working to persuade the public of the need for some animal testing.
  • The number of complaints by students rose to more than 20,000 in 2012-13, a 10 per cent increase on 2010-11, according to the responses of 120 universities to a Freedom of Information request by BBC Radio 4’s File on 4, reported online on 3 June. The figures also showed that the amount paid in compensation to students since 2010 was more than £2 million. David Willetts, the universities and science minister, welcomed the figures as a “good thing”, citing them as evidence that students paying £9,000 tuition fees were willing to hold institutions to account. But the University and College Union said it was no surprise that complaints were rising when students were being encouraged to think like consumers and some now expected “more bang for their increased buck”.
  • The vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge has become one of the most high-profile higher education leaders to weigh in to the immigration debate. In an interview with The Guardian, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who is the son of Polish refugees, said the growing feeling among students abroad that the UK was inhospitable was “quite saddening” given the way his parents had been welcomed. He also blasted the government’s net migration target, saying such “crude” limits hit the “true potential benefit that people coming to Britain can actually have”.
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