The week in higher education

August 7, 2008

- "Breaking news about breaking wind: the world's oldest joke is a one-liner about flatulence," the BBC reported on 1 August. Researchers at the University of Wolverhampton have found evidence that toilet humour was as popular with the ancients as it is today. The world's oldest known joke is a somewhat cryptic - but inescapably crude - crack from 1900BC that goes: "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap." The oldest British joke dates back to the 10th century: What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it has often poked before? Answer: A key.

- Accusations of "hype" and "spin" followed reports of a government pamphlet that tells teenagers they will earn more than £1 million if they sign up to new school diplomas. The booklet, The Diploma: Bridging Learning to Life, says those with A levels, advanced diplomas or apprenticeships may earn £1.23 million over their lifetime. The Daily Telegraph on 2 August quoted education experts accusing the Government of generating "the height of hype" to promote the qualifications.

- Thousands of business school students in Britain and abroad are being investigated for cheating after an entry-test scandal. As many as 6,000 prospective students may have their scores in the worldwide GMAT entry exam cancelled after buying access to questions in advance over the internet. According to The Times on 2 August, a rogue website, run by a criminal gang in China, sold the questions for as little as £15 per student. It was shut down by the FBI last month.

- Divine intervention may be needed to cool a row between Richard Dawkins and a former University of Reading philosophy professor who has turned to God. Richard Flew, who was known as "the world's most notorious atheist" before he became convinced of a "divine intelligence" in 2004, accused Professor Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, of being a "secularist bigot" who had misrepresented the views of Einstein, The Daily Telegraph reported on 2 August. Professor Dawkins responded that Professor Flew, now 85, had lost the ability to read a book, and that his review of The God Delusion was a review of its index.

- Never mind divine intervention, it was a case of Denham intervention this week as the Universities Secretary emerged as a cheerleader for the embattled Prime Minister. John Denham was one of three Cabinet ministers leading the fight against Labour rebels and David Cameron's Opposition by insisting that the right man was already in the job. He also found the time to aim a blow at the Tory higher education policy in The Sunday Times on 3 August, accusing the party of having "a deep belief that too many other people's children now go to university".

- A record number of students - some 42 per cent - are taking part-time jobs to pay their way through university, according to the NatWest Student Living Index. The index also found that Plymouth was the most cost-effective city, with students' living costs averaging £217 a week and their earnings £115. At the other end of the scale was Exeter, where living costs averaged £294 a week and earnings £67, The Daily Mail reported on 4 August.

- Another week, another letter from the 1994 Group of smaller, research-led universities rebutting suggestions that it is less high-flying than the Russell Group of larger research-intensive institutions. Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of Exeter and chairman of the 1994 Group, was responding to an article in The Guardian on 5 August by Estelle Morris, former Education Secretary, in which she said the top places in the university league tables were all occupied by Russell Group institutions. Not so, said Professor Smith. "It is clear across the league tables that 1994 Group institutions match the achievements of the Russell Group."

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