The week in higher education

December 4, 2008

Thousands of "spoon-fed" students are dropping out of university after being pushed on to "pointless" courses, The Daily Telegraph reported on 26 November. According to a report by think-tank Reform, many young people take "Mickey Mouse" degrees, only to see little or no financial reward. Nicknaming them the X Factor generation, Reform said teenagers often quit courses as a result of spoon-feeding at school, which leaves them ill-equipped for university.

British science is being hamstrung by the dumbing down of exams. A Royal Society of Chemistry report sent to MPs warns that "the record breaking results in school exam passes are illusory, with these deficiencies having to be remedied at enormous expense by universities and employers". The society set up an online petition in support of its report, which was signed by more than 1,700 people in the first 24 hours, The Times said on November.

The London School of Economics is celebrating a coup, with its alumni scoring a high profile in the next US administration. But the Financial Times warned that "the dreaming spires of Oxford had better wake up if they want to continue to play in the major leagues of American government". Of the first 15 cabinet and White House appointments by President-elect Barack Obama, none put in time by the banks of the Cherwell, but three earned degrees from the LSE, the paper said on November.

The study of fungi could end within the next ten years in Britain, experts have warned. Few mycologists remain, with the number predicted to dwindle to none by 2018. Joan Kelley, head of mycology at the Centre for Agricultural Bioscience International, told The Independent on 28 November: "There seems to be an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach to funding, but without fungi, life as we know it would not be possible."

'Tis the season to be jolly - but not too jolly. Three fire engines had to be called out to remove a Santa hat from the top of a spire at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. A senior tutor warned that the wag responsible would face serious disciplinary measures if caught, the Daily Mail reported on 1 December.

Q: What do you do if you miss your mother-in-law? A: Reload and try again. The chance to re-tell mother-in-law jokes was too good to miss for the Daily Mail, which reported research on 1 December that suggested mothers were more likely to feud with a daughter-in-law than a son-in-law. The study, led by Terri Apter, a psychologist at Newnham College, Cambridge, found that almost two in three wives felt their husband's mother exhibited "unreasonably jealous maternal love".

It may sound like another joke, but the 2008 Dance Your PhD contest was deadly serious. The event, held in the US, was open to anyone with a science doctorate who was prepared to perform a dance routine conveying what their research was about. The results were broadcast on the internet, Metro reported on 2 December, with the titles including "The role of vitamin D in beta-cell function".

As Times Higher Education went to press, universities were being asked to review plans for capital spending to identify £250 million of investment that can be brought forward to help stimulate economic activity. In a letter to vice-chancellors, Steve Egan, deputy chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, says the sector should advance £50 million to 2008-09 and a further £200 million to 2009-10. "This is about bringing forward capital expenditure within the same total over the three years 2008-09 to 2010-11," the letter says. Hefce is to put together a panel of experts to advise on which projects should be selected, with all of them to be completed by March 2010.

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