The week in higher education

January 22, 2009

A "hands-on experiment" was as good a pun as The Independent could muster in its coverage of research that suggests that finger length can predict a person's future. The study by scientists at the University of Cambridge found that everything from sporting prowess, sexual orientation and susceptibility to disease could be assessed on the twin measurements of the ring and index fingers, the paper said on 14 January. Among City traders, those who had long ring fingers were found to make up to six times more money than their shorter ring-fingered colleagues.

With universities on tenterhooks ahead of the allocation of £1.5 billion in funding after the research assessment exercise, there is no doubt that different groups are lobbying hard to try to ensure that they get the largest sums possible. For The Sunday Times, though, this lobbying spilt over into a full-on "class war" over fears that the elite institutions were going to lose out in a redistribution of funding to new universities. As the two factions fought, it said on 18 January, funding could be spread so thinly that the end result would be "mediocrity" across the sector.

Scoring more column inches than any other higher education-based story this week was a study suggesting that women have more orgasms when they have sex with rich men. The research was picked up everywhere. Marie Claire chortled: "Size (of wallet) matters after all". The Sunday Times was more sober, quoting psychologist Thomas Pollet, from Newcastle University, who said the findings pointed to "evolutionary adaptation" driving women to choose a wealthy mate.

It is mid-January - it must be time for another of Cliff Arnall's "Blue Mondays". The former Cardiff University academic's "mathematical formula" to pinpoint the most depressing day of the year has come in for some stick in the past. But the psychologist is pressing on regardless - in fact, he appears to be upping the ante, telling the Daily Mail that, this year, Monday 19 January was possibly "the most depressing day in history". As well as the usual "depressing factors", fears over job security, mounting debt and the house price collapse make this year the toughest yet, he said.

The University and College Union's proposals to boycott Israeli universities attracted controversy, but it has reasserted its right to challenge actions in the Middle East. Writing in The Guardian on 20 January, Sally Hunt, UCU general secretary, said: "Academics, in particular as trade unionists, are trained to have wide open eyes and voices that speak out. Their views may offend at times, but that right to challenge is vital in any society that holds academic freedom close to its heart."

The director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge used The Guardian's "response" column on 20 January to criticise the paper's coverage of his work. Simon Baron-Cohen said that The Guardian's front-page headline "New research brings autism screening close to reality" and three other headlines associated with the item were all "inaccurate". "These have led to emails from hundreds of worried parents ... erroneously believing that our research is being conducted with a view to wanting to terminate children with autism in the womb ... The study was not about prenatal screening for autism, and indeed did not even test children with autism," he said.

As Times Higher Education went to press, it emerged that David Evenett, Conservative MP for Bexleyheath and Crayford, will replace Rob Wilson as Shadow Minister for Higher Education. Mr Evenett has been a further education lecturer (at Bexley College) and is a former parliamentary private secretary. Mr Wilson will move to the Whip's office. David Willetts remains Shadow Universities Secretary.

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