The week in higher education

February 5, 2009

A pioneering medical researcher has revealed how he took his first steps down his career path - by sending a letter to Blue Peter. Anthony Hollander was nine when he found a dying bird in his garden and wrote: "This may seem very strange, but I think I no (sic) how to make people or animals alive." Thirty-five years later, he is professor of rheumatology and tissue engineering at the University of Bristol, and recently made medical history by growing a new windpipe for a patient using her own stem cells, the Daily Mail reported on 29 January.

Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds, will take over as chair of the Russell Group of 20 research-intensive universities, the group announced on 30 January. "We face the most turbulent period in higher education for some time - with a recession looming, a general election and a fees review - so it's particularly pleasing to be entrusted with navigating the Russell Group through these choppy waters," he said. He will take over from Malcolm Grant on 1 September.

Charles Darwin has been everywhere as his bicentenary approaches, but the tone of the coverage of the great man's milestone has annoyed one of his successors. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, complained in The Daily Telegraph on 2 February that the moment had been "hijacked by those who worship Darwin's personality rather than his ideas ... My own ambition for Darwin Year is different. I hope that by its end its subject's beard, his gastric troubles and even his voyage on the Beagle will have faded from the public consciousness." Meanwhile, The Guardian reported that only 25 per cent of Britons believe Darwin's theory of evolution, and 22 per cent prefer theories of creationism or intelligent design.

David Lammy says that bright children at the worst-performing schools are being put off university by their teachers. The Higher Education Minister said low aspirations were fuelled by teachers' concerns that their pupils' faces "won't fit" at the most selective universities, The Guardian said on 2 February. His comments came as he unveiled £1 million plans to help more than 700 schools hire "talent-spotters" to promote universities to the best young prospects. The next day, two professors asked in the letters pages of The Guardian whether Mr Lammy was guilty of a "Ratner moment". On 3 February, Debbie Epstein and Rebecca Boden wrote that his description of some universities as "selective" was "a giveaway gaffe". It suggests that most of the sector is "non-selective", and "only set the capacity to walk and chew gum as entry criteria".

The Chinese Premier got the George W. Bush treatment while speaking at the University of Cambridge this week when a shoe was hurled at his head. A -year-old protester was arrested after following in the footsteps of an Iraqi journalist who made headlines when he threw his shoes at Mr Bush - a sign of contempt in the Arab world. The Times reported on 3 February that the incident involving Wen Jiabao and the flying shoe went unreported in the Chinese press.

The University and College Union was due to decide whether to hold a ballot for industrial action over pay as Times Higher Education went to press. The UCU had said it would ballot members by 31 January if "satisfactory progress" had not been made on a list of concerns surrounding pay negotiations. But after the union met representatives of the University and Colleges Employers Association on 29 January, it agreed to hold off a ballot decision until 6 February. The two parties jointly said that "diaries are being cleared to urgently facilitate further meetings". The UCU has concerns over the planned timetable for negotiations, which it said would prevent it taking industrial action until summer, and over plans for all campus unions to talk around a single negotiating table.

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