The week in higher education

March 12, 2009

A historian has claimed that the Kremlin may be behind a decision by a Russian publishing house to ditch his latest book, about life under Joseph Stalin.

The publisher, Atticus, insisted it made a business decision, but Orlando Figes, a professor at Birkbeck, University of London, said it may have been pressured by the Russian Government, which he claimed wants to rehabilitate Stalin's reputation.

He told The Guardian on 3 March that his book, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, had been shelved because it was "inconvenient" for the current regime.

However, in the same newspaper on 5 March, Irina Filatova, a professor at the State University - Higher School of Economics in Moscow, discounted the claim as an "embarrassing" conspiracy theory.

Following the disqualification of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, the winning team on University Challenge, for fielding a player who was no longer a student, previous champions have come under closer scrutiny. At least three other teams that have won the television quiz show since 2000 also broke the rules, The Times reported on 4 March.

However, in a letter to the paper, K. Alan Shore, professor of electronic engineering at Bangor University, said that the "saddest aspect" of the affair was that the offending Corpus Christi graduate, Sam Kay, was using his first-class degree in chemistry to train as an accountant.

"Is that what Gordon Brown means by supporting science?" he asked.

A university administrator who was arrested when a colleague found a copy of an al-Qaeda training manual on his computer has been jailed for immigration offences.

Hicham Yezza, an Algerian citizen who worked at the University of Nottingham, was released without charge after being arrested under the Terrorism Act last year. He was later rearrested for falsely claiming he was entitled to stay in the UK.

He has been jailed for nine months, the Nottingham Evening Post reported on 6 March.

The media's endless appetite for the immature and offensive behaviour of Oxbridge students was sated this week by news of a hustings featuring two women and a banana.

Two female undergraduates standing in a student election were asked to simulate a sex act on the fruit at Keble College, Oxford, The Daily Telegraph reported on 7 March.

Meanwhile, a candidate for the presidency of the Cambridge University Students' Union, Guolong Li, was forced to stand down after saying that gay students should be "persuaded to be normal".

On 8 March, The Sunday Times followed up Times Higher Education's coverage of the evidence sent by academics to a parliamentary inquiry on university standards.

The paper said that the evidence exposed a grim picture of a higher education sector "blighted by watered-down degrees, rampant plagiarism and systematic pressure from university authorities to inflate the grades of weak undergraduates".

- Children are languishing in soulless schools, where education is being distorted by an obsession with league tables and formulaic examinations, a leading head teacher has said.

Anthony Seldon, master of Wellington College, likened modern teaching to Thomas Gradgrind's utilitarian values in Charles Dickens' novel Hard Times.

Speaking to The Observer on 8 March ahead of a lecture to the College of Teachers, he said: "Schools need to be liberating places, but it is very hard to do it with the utter throttling, choking straitjacket of the national ... curriculum."

Dr Seldon was also critical of universities: "A tutor of admissions at an Oxford college recently admitted to one of my colleagues at Wellington: 'We are not looking for broad-achieving and rounded students at this college. In fact, we are not rounded people ourselves.'"

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