The week in higher education

September 24, 2009

"Bunk beds, night lectures, late loans. Welcome to university life in 2009." The difficulties facing this year's student intake were painfully clear last week when the student-loan system fell into chaos. A backlog in payments has affected up to 100,000 students, it was reported on 18 September, so thousands face starting university without funds in place. A big rise in the number of applications for finance in the past four weeks sparked the crisis, officials said. Meanwhile, it was reported that some universities have scheduled night classes to cope with the last-minute jump in student numbers, and the University of Exeter has set up bunk beds in single rooms to ensure that every fresher has a place to sleep.

The Russell Group of large research-intensive universities came in for criticism from Phil Willis MP at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Bournemouth. At a fringe meeting on 20 September, the chairman of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee said that when the Government offered 10,000 extra unfunded places for students in July, Russell Group institutions had "put the shutters up". "They should have had a little less sherry and taken on a few more students," he said.

Scientists are operating in "an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty" because of libel laws that discourage them from challenging bogus claims, Richard Dawkins has said. The former professor for the public understanding of science at the University of Oxford said on 20 September that scientists should settle disputes in the lab, not in the court. At the Lib Dem conference, he said libel laws that made it too easy to sue could have "disastrous consequences". The case of Simon Singh, a science writer who is being sued by the British Chiropractic Association, is being watched with bated breath, he said.

Universities may slash the places available to home students to make room for full fee-paying students from abroad if the Government proceeds with plans to cut funding by as much as 25 per cent, a leading vice-chancellor has hinted. Michael Arthur, vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds and head of the Russell Group, said on 20 September that the sector was "very, very worried" by the financial outlook, adding that "the general view is that it is better to cut places than to cut funding per student".

Charges of sorcery have dogged the last royal wizard, John Dee, for four centuries. But this week, a group of scholars met at the University of Cambridge to salvage the reputation of the man who cast horoscopes for Queen Mary. Despite his use of a crystal ball, claims to consult angels and rumours that he conjured up the winds that thwarted the Spanish Armada, Dee is regarded as one of Europe's great scholars and scientific thinkers. Jenny Rampling, who organised the conference at St John's College, said on 21 September: "If you're looking for one of the most original thinkers of his day - that's Dee."

A report on university funding from the Confederation of British Industry's higher education task force provoked outrage from the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, both of which warned that its central theme was "make middle-class students pay more". The Daily Mail said middle-class families would be hit by a "triple whammy" of higher fees, fewer grants and bigger loan repayments if the proposals were adopted. The Daily Telegraph said the report would "horrify middle-class parents". Taking a different view, the Financial Times said on 22 September that "raising tuition fees may be painful, but it is also right".

Contracting the Black Death may not feature on most people's list of concerns these days, but a renowned American scientist studying the origins of the disease has died from an infection linked to the plague. Malcolm Casadaban, a molecular biologist at the University of Chicago, died within 12 hours of coming down with flu-like symptoms earlier this month. It emerged on 22 September that the 60-year-old had been killed by a strain of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, responsible for millions of deaths over the centuries.

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