The week in higher education

April 30, 2009

"Talk about front!" The Sun chortled on 24 April, tickled by a Sun-style Page 3 "blonde beauty" who appeared topless in a University of Cambridge student magazine. The 20-year-old, who was named only as Rachel and is studying at Homerton College, maintained her modesty with a strip of paper with "Varsity" written on it in the spoof end-of-term edition of Varsity magazine.

David Starkey was in the headlines again on 25 April for belittling the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. The historian's remark on BBC One's Question Time that the Celtic Fringe was made up of "feeble" little countries prompted one Scottish politician to observe that Dr Starkey must have a show to publicise. Mike Russell, Scotland's Culture and External Affairs Minister, said the "silly" comments came from someone known for courting controversy. He said: "He is clearly interested in attracting publicity for his many TV appearances." Dr Starkey is currently promoting his Channel 4 series on Henry VIII.

A sixth person linked to a laboratory at the centre of a radiation scare has died of cancer. Tom Whiston, a retired psychology professor at the University of Manchester, worked at the lab where Ernest Rutherford experimented with radioactive materials in the early 20th century. It was reported on 25 April that the 70-year-old died of pancreatic cancer - which has claimed the lives of two others who worked at the building. Two people with links to the lab have died after developing brain tumours, and a sixth former employee has also died. The university is investigating.

"Oxford wants tuition fees increased to £11,000 a year," The Sunday Telegraph trumpeted on 26 April. "Oxford's vice-chancellor did not say that Oxford wished to raise fees to £11,000. That is not Oxford's position," a University of Oxford press notice stated the following day. John Hood, Oxford's vice-chancellor, was adamant that he had been misquoted. "While I noted ... that some increase in tuition fees might be considered desirable, I most certainly did not say that Oxford wished to raise fees to £11,000." The money provided by the Higher Education Funding Council for England to teach each Oxford student fell about £8,000 short of the annual cost of teaching them, Dr Hood said, but he did not want to plug the gap entirely through fees.

It might not have been the answer that The Observer Food Monthly supplement was hoping for on 26 April, but at least it was honest. Discussing whether, as a scientist, he was interested in the "chemistry of food", Brian Cox, professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester, said: "It's bollocks. What I like about food is the taste. I'm not sat there thinking, 'the salt has reacted with the acid' and all that."

Ministers have pledged to press ahead with plans to introduce new academic diplomas in schools within two years, despite criticism from examination boards in England and Wales, it was reported on April. The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) wrote to Ed Balls, the Secretary for Children and Schools, urging him "in the strongest terms" to defer implementation for a year. But Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, dismissed the warning. He told the Financial Times that it was "nonsense" to suggest that plans for the diplomas were "in crisis". David Laws, the Liberal Democrats' Schools Spokesman, said the JCQ's letter "confirms the shambolic state of the ... diploma programme".

Half of university applicants choose the cheaper option when selecting an institution, not the best course or facilities, a poll by the National Union of Students suggests. The survey, released on April, found that 50 per cent of applicants said the recession had affected their choice: many opted for an institution close to home to limit accommodation and travel costs. Meanwhile, the latest figures showed that the number of university applications has risen 8.8 per cent over last year. It is feared that this, coupled with the government freeze on additional student numbers, could lead to tens of thousands of hopefuls missing out on places.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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