The week in higher education

October 23, 2008

"What would you do if you were a magpie?" and "would you rather be a novel or a poem?" are among questions asked in Oxbridge interviews. The bizarre interrogations of applicants were detailed in a survey of 4,000 students, it was reported on 16 October. The Independent put its writers to the test, asking them to answer some of the stranger questions in their field of expertise. Archie Bland, from the paper's comment desk, was asked: "Would you rather be a seedless or a 'non-seedless' grapefruit?" He wrote: "Can I be honest with you? What I'd really like is to be a kumquat."

The University of Oxford faces losses as high as £30 million if its investments in failed Icelandic banks cannot be clawed back. The Daily Telegraph said on 16 October that "the size of Oxford's stranded deposits eclipses those of other universities also blocked from accessing funds".

A race row has blown up at a Welsh university after a prospective student alleged that she was told that "Oriental people like her" might not be up to an accountancy course. Odgerel Hatenboer, who is from Mongolia, said she was humiliated when she went to an open day at Glyndwr University, in Wrexham, and was told that Asian people tended to accept the written word rather than use analytical skills. Her application was subsequently "misplaced", she said, for which the university has apologised, the Daily Post reported on 16 October.

A wave of "memory laws" that dictate what historical interpretations can and cannot be held are undermining freedom across Europe, an academic has warned. Timothy Garton Ash, professor of European studies at the University of Oxford, said such legislation had led to farcical anomalies whereby "what is state-ordained truth in the Alps is state-ordained falsehood in Anatolia". Writing in The Guardian on 16 October, he said: "The historian's equivalent to a natural scientist's experiment is to test the evidence against all possible hypotheses, however extreme, and then submit what seems the most convincing interpretation for criticism. This is how we get as near as one ever can to truth about the past."

Much has been made in recent weeks of rows between Universities Secretary John Denham, University of Cambridge vice-chancellor Alison Richard and University of Oxford chancellor Chris Patten. But Mr Denham, writing in The Times, claims that the antagonism has been cooked up by the media. "Contrary to the impression given by recent headlines, I spent a year in this job making no institutional criticism of either Oxford or Cambridge universities. And although I will always respond robustly to unwarranted criticism of the Government, the recent furore has really underlined how the media debate lags behind reality," he said on 20 October.

With declassified Ministry of Defence files reporting encounters with UFOs, Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal and president of the Royal Society, wants to believe. Although he doubts the veracity of the sightings reported, he said that, "even if we have not been visited, we should not conclude that aliens do not exist". But writing in The Times on 21 October, he warned: "Even if intelligence were widespread ... some brains may package reality in a fashion we cannot conceive and others could be living contemplative lives, doing nothing to reveal their presence." But he added: "Absence of evidence would not be evidence of absence."

Fears that radioactive contamination may be contributing to the deaths of university staff are to be investigated in an independent review. The University of Manchester's Rutherford Building, in which radioactive material was used in the early 20th century, is under scrutiny after a string of cancer cases. The official inquiry is to be led by David Coggan, a public health expert, The Guardian reported on 21 October.

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