The week in higher education

February 26, 2009

They may be unlikely bedfellows, but the transfer market between higher education and the Football Association was back in business last week. Last year, Lord Triesman, a Tottenham Hotspur fan, resigned as Minister for Students to become the first independent chairman of the FA. Now he has put aside club rivalries to poach Arsenal fan Ian Watmore, chief civil servant at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, to be the new chief executive of the FA. On 18 February, The Guardian reported that Mr Watmore found DIUS to be an "uninspiring backwater". His appointment follows a move in the opposite direction by Brian Barwick, the former FA chief executive, who is now a visiting professor at the University of Liverpool.

"Is this Atlantis?" The Sun newspaper asked, alongside a satellite picture of a mysterious grid-like pattern on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The red-top pulled out all the stops for its story on 20 February, claiming to have interviewed "top philosopher" Plato - it quoted him as saying that the picture "backs up the theories about Atlantis I outlined in my dialogues with Timaeus and Critias". Charles Orser, an expert on Atlantis based at New York State University, reportedly said of the picture: "Even if it turns out to be geographical, this definitely deserves a closer look." On 21 February, however, Google Earth, which owns the picture, said the mysterious lines were simply sonar data collected from boats.

The prospect of research funding being spread too thinly across the sector strikes fear into the heart of the research elite. However, according to The Sunday Times, John Denham, the Universities Secretary, is abandoning efforts to "promote the research credentials of new universities". On 22 February, the newspaper said that Mr Denham wanted new universities to "revert to their old polytechnic role". Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, commented: "There is not one shred of evidence that this would benefit students, employers or the research base of the UK." However, in a speech at a higher education debate in London on 24 February, Mr Denham said: "We should firmly reject any idea of creating an artificial, strict separation between research institutions and non-research institutions".

The remarkable performances of Oxford Classics student Gail Trimble on BBC Two's quiz show University Challenge have been likened to an "intellectual blitzkrieg". Described as perhaps the cleverest contestant the TV show has ever seen, the 26-year-old's academic prowess has left many, including quizmaster Jeremy Paxman, breathless with admiration. Unsurprisingly, she powered the team from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, to victory in the final this week. The Independent said on 23 February: "This is only a quiz show ... what will she be the next time we hear of her?" The answer is to be found in The Daily Telegraph: "When she graduates next year, she hopes to be an academic," it reported.

As Times Higher Education went to press, MPs were due to warn that universities had not achieved enough in terms of widening participation, despite spending £392 million over five years on improving access. Edward Leigh, chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, said: "It is dismaying that the Government seems to have little idea what universities have been doing with this money. Certainly, progress has been poor. The rate at which working-class young people participate in higher education has increased by only two percentage points."

Paul Wellings, vice-chancellor of the University of Lancaster, has been named the next chairman of the 1994 Group of medium-sized research-intensive universities. On 1 August, he will take over from Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, who has been elected the next president of Universities UK.

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