The week in higher education

October 30, 2008

The most famous physicist of his era, Stephen Hawking, is to retire as Lucasian professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge. The 66-year-old will give up the title next year but will continue to work as Emeritus Lucasian professor, an honorary title, The Daily Telegraph reported on 23 October. The university said it was normal policy for professors to "pass the baton" at 67, by which time Professor Hawking will have held the post for 30 years.

Raj Persaud, the disgraced "celebrity psychiatrist", has quit his job as a consultant psychiatrist for the South London and Maudsley National Health Service Trust, four months after admitting plagiarism. Persaud was struck off for three months by the General Medical Council, but he left his post after serving his suspension, The Guardian reported on 24 October. He admitted nine cases of plagiarism but denied deceit at a hearing earlier this year, when he blamed overwork and misunderstanding for his failure to acknowledge sources.

"Bright teenagers are a disappearing breed" with the intellectual ability of the country's cleverest youngsters declining radically in one generation, the Daily Mail reported. According to a study by researchers at King's College London, the "high-level thinking" skills of today's 14-year-olds are on a par with the 12-year-olds of 1976. The study tested 800 teenagers on their understanding of abstract scientific concepts such as volume and density, with the results compared to those of a similar study 30 years ago. The Mail blamed the "dimming down" on "the rise of TV and computer games, and over-testing in schools".

An admissions scandal dating back to 2000 reached a happy conclusion when Laura Spence graduated from the University of Cambridge. The former state-school pupil was at the centre of a storm of controversy eight years ago when she was refused a place at the University of Oxford despite gaining five A grades in her A levels. She travelled to the US to study at Harvard University instead. Four years ago, she returned to the UK for a graduate course in medicine at Cambridge, from which she graduated this week, The Daily Telegraph reported on October.

A Cambridge college has broken new ground with an investment deal designed to exploit opportunities presented by the credit crunch. The Financial Times said Clare College's decision to borrow £15 million at a fixed rate for 40 years to invest in equities pushed down below their rational value by the credit crunch was the first of its kind by any college or charity. The paper said on 28 October that the deal was "sensational" and "moves beyond even the frontiers breached by top US institutions", which are renowned for innovative investment policies.

Poor advice is preventing many academically able pupils from non-privileged homes going to university, a study by the Sutton Trust has found. The charity says that "inadequate and inappropriate" careers advice at state schools means "swaths" of young people with the potential to go to university are missing out. Its report suggests that guidance should be targeted at primary school pupils, and that all secondary schools should appoint a senior member of staff to advise students on applying to university, The Guardian reported on 28 October.

As Times Higher Education went to press, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service said that applications to the universities of Cambridge and Oxford were up by 10 per cent on last year. Oxford said it was the most competitive year in the university's history, with 15,000 people applying for about 3,000 places. Cambridge said it had more than 15,000 applicants, whereas the equivalent figure for the past four years had been relatively steady at about 13,500.

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