The week in higher education

September 17, 2009

The head of the Student Loans Company has been forced to apologise amid anger over delays that have left tens of thousands of students without loans. Up to 170,000 students are reported to be awaiting the outcome of their application. Ralph Seymour-Jackson, chief executive of the SLC, admitted that his organisation had difficulties processing all the applications. It is the first time that new applications have been handled centrally by the SLC rather than by local authorities. Phil Willis, chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, said: "It's chaos ... a huge bureaucratic nightmare." Some universities are preparing to issue emergency funds so students can defer their accommodation costs.

A row has broken out at Harvard University over a pricey line of preppy clothing the university has lent its name to. In a deal with the fashion group Wearwolf, a line of $160 (£97) shirts and $495 blazers called Harvard Yard will hit the stores next spring. But the move could send the wrong signal to students from poor backgrounds and undermine access efforts. J.P. Stiltz, who plays for Harvard's polo team, said: "I think it is going to be bad for Harvard's image. We already have an image that all our students are aristocratic, preppy bastards." The university says the proceeds will go towards financial aid for underprivileged students.

The "earning power" of degrees from different universities has been revealed in a league table published by The Sunday Times. University of Cambridge economics graduates were the highest-paid group among last year's leavers, earning an average salary of £38,000 just six months after they graduated, compared with the £12,000 pocketed by creative arts graduates from Newcastle University.

Butterfly experts are in a flutter after the appearance in a top journal of a paper that they say is bizarre and unsupported by evidence. The paper, by Donald Williamson, a retired academic from the University of Liverpool, was published in advance online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As reported online by Times Higher Education on 13 September, it was shepherded into publication by Lynn Margulis, a professor in the department of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, via a mechanism that allows national academy members to bypass normal editorial procedures. It claims that butterflies and caterpillars have different evolutionary histories and are a hybrid that resulted from the mating of a flying insect with a worm-like species. In a posting called "Worst paper of the year?" on his blog "Why Evolution is True", Jerry Coyne, a professor of biology at the University of Chicago, says the paper is an example of a "bigwig" exercising undue influence.

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A former head of Universities Scotland has been accused of being "out of touch" after he suggested that tuition fees should be reintroduced. Lord Sutherland said some of the money could go to scholarships for students from poor backgrounds. But Tony Axon, University and College Union Scotland spokesperson, said the consensus was opposition to fees. "His attempt to legitimise the reintroduction of fees by calling for increased bursaries for students ... reveals that he has clearly not properly investigated the failing system south of the border," he said.

The body of a Yale University student has been found in a cavity wall in a laboratory building on what should have been her wedding day. Video footage of Annie Le, a 24-year-old pharmacology student, showed her entering the campus building on 8 September, but she did not emerge.

The producer of a British film about Charles Darwin says his movie has failed to find a distributor in the US because the theory of evolution is too controversial there. Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning producer of Creation, which stars British actor Paul Bettany, said: "That's what we're up against in 2009. It's amazing ... It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but the US, and it's because of what the film is about."

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