The week in higher education

July 9, 2009

Trendy teaching is producing a generation of "history numbskulls", according to an informal study by an academic at Cardiff University. Over three years, Derek Matthews, a professor of economics, asked 284 first-year students five questions he felt they should all be able to answer. Just one in six knew that the Duke of Wellington led the British Army in the Battle of Waterloo, and only one in ten could name any of the UK's 20 19th-century prime ministers. His findings were highlighted by Michael Gove, the Conservative Shadow Schools Secretary, who on 1 July pledged a refocus on core academic subjects if the Tories came to power.

The length of a student's dress was deemed newsworthy enough to warrant three pictures and a column of print in The Daily Telegraph on 2 July. The 22-year-old, whose alma mater was not identified, was barred from the stewards' enclosure at Henley Royal Regatta because her hemline was too high. She was allowed in later in a more demure outfit.

The Government should act to eradicate the myth that philanthropic giving to higher education is unnecessary, according to an expert in the field. Nicholas Ferguson, chairman of the Institute for Philanthropy, said on 2 July that successive administrations had been unwilling to challenge the public view that government funding alone was sufficient for the sector. "It is a great irony that this Government, which has done a great deal to help philanthropy in the UK, is now holding it back in the case of universities," he said.

Tales of medical students' high jinks are a staple of campus legend, but medics are now being warned that college pranks could blight their careers. A conference held by the British Medical Association heard that students who have been out on the town are facing professional disciplinary hearings by medical schools in moves that, it is claimed, contravene new General Medical Council guidance. Student pranksters could face permanent black marks on their employment records, it was reported on 2 July.

A student with swine flu from the University of Nottingham has sparked alarm in Kenya. The 20-year-old medical student spent a week visiting hospitals, clinics, schools and orphanages with a group of undergraduates, unaware that he was carrying the virus - the first confirmed case in the country, it was reported on 2 July.

Out of the mouths of babes come some painful truths, and academic credentials offer little protection from their straight-talking. A.C. Grayling, professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, has admitted that his young daughter often points out his intellectual failings and said he has been wise enough to act on her criticisms. He said on 5 July: "Every professor of philosophy needs a nine-year-old daughter. Mine has a habit of saying, 'Daddy, that is a very silly idea.' She is always right."

Weighing in on the debate over the plight of the "lost generation" of students graduating this year, Janet Street-Porter gave David Lammy a dressing-down. On 5 July, the journalist accused the Higher Education Minister of being "a lightweight who has singularly failed to stand up to the Treasury to protect students from even higher charges". Her anger stemmed from the announcement last week that student grant levels have been frozen in spite of a 2.04 per cent increase in tuition fees.

The world's biggest thesaurus is to be published 44 years after a professor of English language started work on it. The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary will contain 800,000 meanings for 600,000 words, it was reported on 6 July. The tome, twice the size of the Roget's version, contains almost the entire English lexicon, from Old English to present-day terms. It was started in 1965 by a team led by Michael Samuels, a professor at the University of Glasgow. Several of the project's founders did not live to see the work completed.

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