The week in higher education

September 11, 2008

- If you are reading this, it is safe to assume the world did not end, as some predicted, when Cern's Large Hadron Collider was switched on this week. Amid the apocalyptic warnings, The Independent found time on 3 September to profile the "photogenic face of particle physics", pop star-turned-professor Brian Cox. An interview with Professor Cox, a former member of band D:Ream who is now at the University of Manchester, was headlined: "Sex and drugs and particle physics". Meanwhile, on 5 September the Financial Times warned that the LHC might be a "final flourish" for both Cern and particle physics in general because of a looming black hole in funding.

- While most of the press followed the Daily Mail in reporting a "-year high for state-school pupils at Cambridge", The Daily Telegraph opted for the alternative line: "Number of private-school pupils at Cambridge University at -year low". Whatever the headline, the admissions figures were the same: there are 200 more students from state schools at Cambridge than last year, accounting for 59 per cent of the total intake. In another story on 5 September, the Financial Times said that Cambridge was considering radical plans to give students who miss out on top A-level marks a second chance. Under the proposals, bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds could enrol on a special one-year "foundation degree" run by the university.

- An academic was left facing a battle to get his family back after his 11-year-old stepdaughter was barred from leaving Russia. Patrick Osborne, a civil engineering lecturer at the University of Southampton, was told that his stepdaughter Victoria might have to stay in Russia until she is 18. Soon after she arrived for a trip to the country, her biological father, a Russian national, imposed an order that prevents her from leaving, the Daily Mail said. In a report on 5 September, Dr Osborne said the girl's father had played no part in her life until now and that he was determined to get his family back together.

- After Ken Smith, a criminologist at Bucks New University, sparked an international outcry last month with an opinion piece in Times Higher Education calling for lecturers' to accept students' most common spelling mistakes as variant spellings, he received backing from an eminent source this week. John Wells, emeritus professor of phonetics at University College London, said in a speech to the centenary dinner of the Spelling Society, reported on 9 September, that: "It is time to remove the fetish that says that correct spelling is a principal mark of being educated."

- "Radiation left over from 100-year-old experiments by Ernest Rutherford, the father of modern nuclear physics, may be responsible for the recent deaths of two Manchester University lecturers," The Guardian reported on 9 September. An internal report said that there was contamination in the Rutherford Building until as late as 2006. Hugh Wagner, who worked in a room in which experiments with radon had been carried out, died in 1997 of pancreatic cancer. His colleague John Clark, who worked in the room below, died in 1992 of a brain tumour. Dr Wagner's wife was reported to be considering possible legal action against the university.

- As Times Higher Education went to press, the Trades Union Congress held a vote on university top-up fees and rejected the idea of them. In a press statement on 9 September, the University and College Union said the move by the TUC was "a stark warning to universities and politicians agitating for a rise in fee levels".

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