The week in higher education

June 4, 2009

Ed Balls, like many MPs, is in hot water over his expenses claims. Alongside the schools secretary's controversial claim for two Remembrance Day wreaths is another disputed claim, this time for a book, The Rebels: How Blair Mislaid His Majority. Written by Philip Cowley, a politics professor at the University of Nottingham, the book assesses the role of left-wing rebel Labour MPs under Tony Blair. Mr Balls said the book was a present for a student intern, prompting the self-deprecating Professor Cowley to respond: "What a crappy present! And you can quote me on that."

A strategy proposed by US President Barack Obama's "energy guru" to tackle global warming could be described as something of a whitewash. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who is now US Secretary of Energy, wants to "paint the world white", according to reports on May. The idea, which mirrors the advice of British scientists, is to reflect the sun's rays back into space by painting the roofs of buildings, roads and pavements white. Dr Chu said the environmental impact of such a policy, if introduced worldwide, would be equivalent to taking all the cars in the world off the road for 11 years.

Historians may not have the sexiest image on campus, but they are getting the most sex. According to a survey by Cherwell, the University of Oxford's student newspaper, "Historians get the most action, only 15 per cent of students are still to lose their virginity and you are much more likely to achieve a First if you are homosexual." Students of English literature and politics, philosophy and economics also score highly in the poll of over 850 students, the "dirty details" of which were published on 28 May.

An analysis by the Conservative Party, showing the number of school-leavers who go on to university as being twice as high in England's richest neighbourhoods as in the poorest, provoked a furious response from the Government on 28 May. David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, claimed the statistics revealed "the scandal of low social mobility in Britain today". However, an adviser to John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, shot back: "David Willetts and his fellow Conservatives have opposed every measure the Government has taken to give more young people from poor backgrounds a university education."

The push to get young people interested in science may have found an unlikely poster boy in a member of TV show Britain's Got Talent's winning dance troupe. Ashley Banjo, choreographer and dancer in Diversity, revealed on 1 June that he is taking a degree in physics and biology, and has no intention of dropping out. "My education matters to me," he said. "I'm not going to be spinning on my head when I am 50, but as a qualified scientist I can always earn a living."

It has all but disappeared from the news, but the threat of a swine flu pandemic was given fresh legs by a leading virologist on 1 June. John Oxford, professor of virology at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London, reportedly predicted that the virus would strike with a vengeance in the autumn. "It can die down, but then everybody around the world comes back together, universities reopen and people start returning to work and school, and that's when the trouble starts," he said.

Britain's top universities should sever ties with Government and go it alone, freeing them from the "fads and fashions" of public funding, the head of Imperial College London has said. Speaking on 2 June, Sir Roy Anderson, Imperial's rector, said as many as five elite institutions should be privatised to protect their world-class reputations. He said it was "madness" that universities in the global elite were facing funding cuts.

The Great Wall of China isn't the only surprising thing that can be seen from space - scientists from the British Antarctic Survey have also spotted penguin poo. It was reported on 2 June that researchers located emperor penguin breeding colonies around Antarctica's coast by tracing their droppings via satellite images.

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