The week in higher education

February 12, 2009

Students "have been sold a lie" by an "official conspiracy" that hoodwinks them into believing that all universities are the same, wrote columnist Decca Aitkenhead in The Guardian. She described lectures at new universities that were ruined by iPod-wearing students, and suggested some were not getting the "social and cultural incubation" she enjoyed at the University of Manchester. Her article triggered an avalanche of letters on 4 February. Phil Cardew, pro vice-chancellor at London Southbank University, said she "displayed an elitist, middle-class, 'pull up the ladder behind you' attitude". Michael Dempsey, a lecturer at The Open University, weighed in: "Ms Aitkenhead's lazy slurs ... are of tabloid quality and short of evidence. She doesn't get any marks from me."

Economics ranked as the UK's top discipline in the recent research assessment exercise, but The Times has blamed "academics and their mad theories" for the financial crisis. In a column on 5 February, Anatole Kaletsky argued that they are guiltier than bankers or politicians. He quoted economist John Maynard Keynes, who said that "madmen in authority ... are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years' back". Warning that economics is "on the brink of a paradigm shift", Mr Kaletsky said that "the prevailing academic orthodoxy has to be recognised as a blind alley".

It was manna from heaven for The Sun: the bizarre activities of an undergraduate drinking society with the magic formula of sleaze, booze and Cambridge students. The "vile" pictures it obtained showed students doing everything from "frolicking with midgets dressed as Oompa Loompas" to swallowing live goldfish, eating pig snouts and "simulating ORAL SEX as part of a sordid initiation ceremony", it said. The story on 6 February was sparked by the shenanigans of the Newnham Nuns, a drinking society at all-women Newnham College, and was seized on by the tabloid as an opportunity to recount other instances of bad behaviour by Cambridge undergraduates.

Hollywood has been chastised by a University of Oxford academic for making its heroines "weight-obsessed and man-mad". Diane Purkiss, a fellow of Keble College, said female characters in major US films were becoming "dumber and dumber". "It is a sad day when you look back at Bridget Jones with some affection," she is quoted as saying in The Observer on 8 February.

Albert Einstein may have wasted his time in the hunt for a "theory of everything". In his new book The Grand Design, Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking says that the search, which still preoccupies many of his colleagues, is probably a dead end. On 8 February, The Sunday Times quoted him as saying: "Some people will be disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory ... but I'm glad our search for understanding will never end."

The RAE has been compared with a sport in which players "decide the rules and the final score". Murray Steele, a lecturer at Cranfield School of Management, also warned that in his field, "much research is divorced from reality", as academics are more interested in getting papers published than the practical application of their work. He wrote in the Financial Times on 9 February: "A simple criterion for research effectiveness should be: is someone willing to pay for this? This notion verged on heresy in most business schools."

The suggestion that taking ecstasy is no more dangerous than riding a horse prompted Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, to "slap down" a top academic adviser. David Nutt, professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Bristol and chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, made the comments in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Ms Smith told MPs on 9 February that he had "trivialised" a serious issue, the BBC reported.

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