The week in higher education - 9 May 2013

  • “Boring” university lectures are likely to be the first victims of the rise of online learning, according to Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales. Speaking to BBC Online on 1 May, Mr Wales suggested that university students should have access to recordings of lectures and use contact hours with academics to discuss the content. “In university you’re still likely to be in a large lecture hall with a very boring professor, and everyone knows it’s not working very well,” he said. “It’s not even the best use of that professor’s time or [the audience’s].” Those “big-brand” universities that failed to adapt faced losing ground to more tech-savvy entrants to the higher education market, he argued.
  • A University of York history student has refuted suggestions that her alma mater offers poor value for money after it emerged that those on her course receive fewer than 100 teaching hours a year. Writing in the Daily Mail’s letters page on 3 May, Bethan Vincent said she was delighted with her time on campus, despite having zero contact hours this term. It follows the paper’s exposé on the “scandal” of huge differences in the amount of teaching time at Britain’s top universities, with history students at York receiving less than a third of the 336 hours provided by the University of Bath or the 324 on offer at University College London. Elsewhere, politics students at the University of Leeds and theology undergraduates at the University of Sheffield had around half the hours - 120 - of their counterparts in Liverpool and Manchester, the Mail added. But Ms Vincent praised the extra classes available at York, not reflected in the statistics, as well as the opportunity to visit libraries in the historic city and study abroad in the Netherlands. “A university shouldn’t be defined by a number,” she argued.
  • The 100 academics who signed a letter criticising the education secretary Michael Gove’s fetish for rote learning have again come under fire. Mr Gove had already denounced the letter, published in March, as “bad academia”, but it has now been branded “simply illiterate” by the judges of The Idler’s inaugural Bad Grammar awards, The Guardian reported on 4 May. Bizarrely, much of the criticism centres on the professors’ insistence that Mr Gove’s plans demand “too much too young”, which wrongly uses “young” as an adverb when it is an adjective (“too early” would be correct, the judges insist). The phrase seemed to work well enough for The Specials who topped the charts with a song using it back in 1980. But according to judge Toby Young - coincidentally one of Mr Gove’s most vocal supporters - the blunder fatally undermined the educators’ points about the controversial new curriculum.
  • Scientists have criticised the election of the Duke of York to the Royal Society amid claims of a rigged ballot, The Sunday Times reported on 5 May. Just 11 per cent of the society’s fellows voted for Prince Andrew to join the organisation, with a huge number abstaining or spoiling their papers in protest, it was announced last week. Several objectors have since written to the society’s president Sir Paul Nurse, saying they oppose the choice of Prince Andrew - who has no scientific background - and the voting process that they say allowed them only to vote yes. “A ballot where you can only say yes is a bad idea and should be changed,” said Lord May, a former president.
  • Historian Niall Ferguson has apologised for “homophobic” remarks about the economist John Maynard Keynes, The Times reported on 6 May. The Harvard University professor found himself in hot water after claiming that Keynes did not care about the future of society - and thus was happy to pile debt on to future generations - because he was gay and had no children. Professor Ferguson quickly recanted his “doubly stupid” comments, but other academics have claimed he has made similar remarks throughout his career. “These were not ‘off the cuff’ remarks. I heard him make the same 20 years ago,” said Michael Kitson, a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School.

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