The week in higher education

May 21, 2009

"Poet quits over Bard example" punned The Sun, as it reported that Derek Walcott had withdrawn from the race to become the University of Oxford professor of poetry. The Nobel prizewinner pulled out of the election after fellow academics were sent letters alleging sexual impropriety on his part while he was teaching in the US as a younger man. The 79-year-old has denied any wrongdoing, and said he was "disappointed at the low tactics" that had been employed during the Oxford election, it was reported on 14 May. His withdrawal somewhat tainted the subsequent victory of Ruth Padel. In The Observer on 17 May, columnist Catherine Bennett revealed that as an Oxford student in the 1970s, a tutor had "backed me against a wall and forced his flobbly tongue into my mouth". Her tutor "was no less evolved for his time and place than many", she said, before going on to argue that in failing to call off the election, Oxford had "given way to malevolent smears" against Walcott. As a result, it had "ended up with a mediocre versifier".

Thanks for food, companionship and peace have replaced the traditional prayer thanking God before mealtimes at a Cambridge college. Until now, grace has been said in Latin before every formal dinner at Newnham College, with students and staff giving thanks to "Jesus Christ Our Lord". Now a new version has been drafted by students, which reads in translation: "For food in a hungry world, for companionship in a world of loneliness, for peace in an age of violence, we give thanks." Classics don Mary Beard, who is a fellow of the women-only college, said the new grace was a pack of platitudes that amounted to an "insult to Latin". "Could we imagine getting up and saying this in English? No. Well don't say it in Latin then," she said on 14 May.

David Willetts has repaid £135 that he claimed in expenses to have 25 light bulbs changed at his home. The Shadow Universities Secretary made the repayment after David Cameron, his party leader, cracked the whip and ordered Tory MPs to return "unacceptable" claims, it was reported on 14 May. Others caught out in the expenses scandal returned rather larger sums deemed to have been claimed inappropriately, including Shadow Schools Secretary Michael Gove, who returned £7,000, and Labour MP Phil Hope, who returned £41,000.

Barack Obama has made light of a university's decision not to offer him an honorary degree, which it traditionally bestows on visiting speakers. In a speech to graduates at Arizona State University, the US President said: "I come here not to dispute the suggestion that I haven't yet achieved enough in my life. Michelle Obama's wife concurs with that assessment. She has a long list of things that I have not yet done waiting for me when I get home." Arizona State officials withheld the honour on the grounds that Mr Obama's "body of work is yet to come", it was reported on 15 May.

"Angry students expose worst-taught degrees" shouted The Sunday Times on 17 May. The paper said that poor courses at "some of the country's top universities" had been revealed by research, and that cuts in teaching hours and growing class sizes had created "a new mood of militancy" among students. The fact that the data used were from the September 2008 National Student Survey did not deter The Daily Telegraph from following up the story, reporting on 18 May that more than 30 courses at universities in the Russell Group and the 1994 Group, "generally regarded as the best in the country", were placed in the bottom tenth.

The National Student Survey was described in The Guardian on 19 May as a "hotchpotch of subjectivity". The newspaper reported on how controversial the measure, which is one of the indicators in its annual university league tables, has become. "It's an optional survey, so many universities who don't shove it in their students' faces are penalised, and so only the complainers bother to fill it in," one commentator said.

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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