The week in higher education

May 14, 2009

Almost a quarter of France's state-run universities remain crippled because of an ongoing strike by staff and students. The protests, now in their 14th week, have already gone on long enough to ensure that some students will have to repeat the entire academic year, it was reported on 8 May. The showdown was sparked by plans to change the status of academic researchers, which would give university leaders more say over how staff spend their time, but has since widened into a more general dispute over the Government's proposals to overhaul the sector.

A letter from an academic lamenting the sloppy use of the word "may" by the General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers prompted a missive in response from an eagle-eyed reader of The Independent on 8 May. "Mirabile dictu, the don's letter is preceded by one from Professor Tom Simpson, of the University of Bristol, who apparently thinks that the word 'media' is singular," he writes.

The era of sharp growth in student numbers may be over, the new chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England has said. Sir Alan Langlands said on 9 May that he could "envisage some levelling off" in undergraduate numbers because of the squeeze on public spending. He also warned of bleak times for staff: "I think there are institutions that might have to cut their cloth a bit and reduce costs to deal with the new circumstances," he said. Sir Alan added that "perhaps there will be job losses in certain places" as a result, although many on the front line would argue that the sector is already long past the knife-sharpening stage.

Women in senior positions at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills are paid more, on average, than their male colleagues. Bucking the trend of a gender pay gap that favours men, DIUS paid its female staff in senior posts £3,000 more than their male counterparts - £78,710 compared with £75,380, an analysis by the Office for National Statistics published on 9 May reveals.

Books on the top shelves of the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library have been put off limits to students on health and safety grounds. It was reported on 9 May that students had been banned from using stepladders to reach the books, some of which are hundreds of years old, lest they hurt themselves.

"How many Shadow Cabinet Ministers does it take to change a light bulb?" asked Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, on 11 May. His rather forced humour came as The Daily Telegraph printed details of David Willetts' expenses in the latest instalment of its ongoing expose of MPs' financial antics. Leaked documents reveal that the Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary claimed £100 to pay workmen to change 25 light bulbs at his second home in West London. "He may have the nickname 'Two Brains', but it seems his knowledge does not stretch to replacing light bulbs," the Daily Mail gibed gleefully. Mr Willetts also tried to claim £175 for a dog enclosure, the documents reveal, but this was refused by House of Commons officials.

The latest university league table, published by The Guardian on 12 May, concurs with The Independent's earlier judgment that the University of Oxford is the best in the country. The Guardian's top four is completed by the universities of Cambridge, St Andrews and Warwick, while The Independent preferred Cambridge, Imperial College London and the London School of Economics.

Widening access may be a noble cause, but the truth is that some children are born "not very bright" and there is not a lot that policymakers can do about it. So said Chris Woodhead, the controversial former chief inspector of schools, in an interview with The Guardian on 12 May. He added that a child's "genes are likely to be better if their parents are teachers, academics (or) lawyers".

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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