The week in higher education

October 29, 2009

Meat juices, cabbage water and soy sauce: the ingredients for the perfect gravy have been identified by the Royal Society of Chemistry. The research, published on 23 October, also stipulates that, for the best meaty elixir, cooks should use iodised salt rather than table salt. Other headline-grabbing studies out this week explain why red wine does not go well with fish, why babies who suck their thumbs are more likely to suffer speech problems, and why people cannot talk on mobile phones and walk in a straight line at the same time.

Plans to divert money from increased tuition fees into bursary schemes have been cast as a bid to make middle-class families "pay thousands of pounds to subsidise degrees for poorer students". According to The Sunday Times, universities in the 1994 Group of smaller research-intensive institutions plan to use up to £2,000 of a £7,000 fee - if such a rise is sanctioned by the forthcoming review - to help students from poor backgrounds. But the paper said on 25 October that "critics argue scholarships make little difference to poorer students' decisions" on whether to attend university.

A year ago, Michael Reiss stepped down as education director of the Royal Society after furious reaction to his suggestion that creationism should be discussed in schools. Now it appears that more than half of Britons agree with him. In a poll for the British Council, 54 per cent of respondents said that Christian-backed explanations for the origins of life should have a place alongside the theory of evolution on the school curriculum. Less than one quarter said that only evolution should be taught, it was reported on 26 October - a lower proportion than in India or Spain.

There have been promises that quangos will be cut as Britain faces a new age of austerity, but until now it has not been clear which sector spends the most on them. Now a report by pressure group the Taxpayers' Alliance, released on 26 October, suggests that the former Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills lavished more money than any other government department on the unelected bodies. It reported that DIUS directed £21 billion to 23 bodies in 2007-08, including £7 billion to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

Four years ago, South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk was hailed as a national hero when he claimed to have grown stem cells from the world's first cloned human embryos. So great was his apparent achievement that the country issued a postage stamp to mark his breakthrough, which promised to help treat an array of debilitating conditions. But the veneer of brilliance soon began to flake off, with questions raised about the veracity of his research and the legality of his methods. On 26 October, Dr Hwang became a national disgrace after being convicted in court of embezzling research funds, buying human eggs illegally and a host of other charges related to his research. The 56-year-old was spared jail, receiving a suspended sentence for the offences.

One of six Harvard Medical School researchers who fell ill after drinking coffee laced with a toxic chemical said he does not see how the poisoning could have been accidental. Details of the poisonings, which occurred this summer, have been revealed in an internal memo to school staff. The memo identifies the substance as sodium azide, which is commonly used in labs. Matteo Iannacone, a postdoctoral fellow who was poisoned, said he "always thought it was a deliberate substance added to the coffee". "It was too strange to be an accident," he said in an interview on October.

The continuing fiasco over the late processing of loans has prompted the National Union of Students to call for the chief executive of the Student Loans Company to resign. The NUS said that as of 18 October, 146,000 students with approved applications had still not received funds, and 141,000 applications had been received but not approved. Wes Streeting, the NUS president, said on October: "Hundreds of thousands of students have been affected by late payments or lost documents and have endured a miserable start to term. It is time for Ralph Seymour-Jackson to take full responsibility for this shambles and resign."

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