The week in higher education

January 1, 2009

Sir Bernard Crick, writer, academic and former contributor to Times Higher Education, has died aged 79. Variously described as a "publicly concerned scholar and maverick" by The Guardian and an "old-fashioned socialist" by his son Oliver, he died in Edinburgh on 19 December.

If there were a prize for research most likely to get press coverage, the team at Heriot-Watt University that linked marriage breakdown to unrealistic expectations forged by Hollywood romances would be clearing space in their trophy cabinet. Simon Hoggart, writing in The Guardian on 20 December, had a solution: "Maybe the DVD 'extras' should include scenes of what happened later," he said. "Mr Darcy is looking forward to his wedding night, when Elizabeth takes out half a dozen soft toys with winsome names like Snooky and lines them up on the pillow."

A "green revolution" was hailed by The Observer on 21 December after Barack Obama appointed a leading climate-change expert as his chief scientist. Harvard University physicist John Holdren has been appointed director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The role of an academic in the botched inquiry into the murder of Rachel Nickell was thrust back into the spotlight after a convicted killer admitted to the crime. The advice provided to police by criminal profiler Paul Britton, a psychology lecturer at the University of Leicester, has been blamed by some for the pursuit of the wrong man - Colin Stagg - for the murder of the young woman, who was killed in 1992. However, Dr Britton hit back after the conviction of another man, serial sex attacker Robert Napper, telling The Daily Telegraph on 21 December that police would have had the killer "within half an hour" if they had followed his advice correctly.

"University of the bleedin' obvious" read The Sunday Times headline over a report on the "pointless" research published in 2008. "This year research has been published concluding that heavy drinkers may forget their most negative boozy experiences, that a nice cup of tea makes people feel calmer and that women find displays of kindness and generosity an attractive characteristic in men," it said on 21 December. "Why do academics spend time and money investigating what seems like blindingly obvious common sense?" The answer, it seems, is in the paper's News Review section, where five "weird and wonderful" pieces of research were given a glowing write-up - coverage that the researchers behind more "serious" studies could only dream of.

Richard Dawkins has described as "a national disgrace" the finding that three in ten state-school science teachers believe that creationism should be taught alongside evolution. The finding, in a poll of teachers at primary and secondary schools, left the Oxford professor of evolutionary biology and well-known atheist dismayed. "If teaching creationism 'alongside' evolution means what it seems to mean, it is no more defensible than teaching the stork theory alongside the sex theory of where babies come from," he wrote in The Guardian on 23 December.

"Universities should be free to charge up to £20,000," said The Daily Telegraph on 29 December. The paper, following up The Sunday Times of 28 December, gave a sneak preview of a report by Sir John Chisholm, chairman of defence company QinetiQ and chair of the Medical Research Council. It is due to be published later this month as part of a series of reports by the "users" of higher education on future challenges for the sector and will say that the £3,145 cap on student tuition fees should be lifted. The Daily Mail said the proposals "would mean parents facing hefty bills for their children's degrees", as universities charge US-style fees of up to £20,000. All the "user" reviews, and a series produced by vice-chancellors last year, will inform the Government's review of tuition-fee levels later this year.

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