The week in higher education

November 19, 2009

An American academic has stirred up controversy after posting adverts around Duke University asking female students to take part in a "sexually explicit" study. Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist, is seeking participants for a study involving parties at which sex toys will be sold and discussed. It was reported on 11 November that Father Joe Vetter, director of the Duke Catholic Centre, had accused Professor Ariely of encouraging students to "sit around and masturbate". Blogger Katie Drummond, writing on, responds: "Come on - these women aren't going to swear off men, and marriage, and retire to their dorm rooms with a discounted vibrator and a Sade CD."

Higher education is being overseen by the "alpha male of the Westminster village", an awards ceremony has confirmed. Lord Mandelson, the First Secretary, was named politician of the year at the annual awards held by The Spectator magazine on 12 November. The judges said that Lord Mandelson, who is responsible for universities among many other things, "reigned supreme this year, appearing to run the Government single-handedly". The First Secretary remarked: "I haven't actually accumulated a new title for some weeks now, so this award is particularly welcome."

Senior nursing academics have called on the Government to inject more cash into supporting nursing students amid fears that plans to put every new nurse through a degree in the subject will undermine efforts to widen participation. It was reported on 13 November that all new nurses will need a degree from 2013. However, the Council of Deans of Health warned that if students are not funded properly, the least well-off will choose not to enter the profession. Currently most trainee nurses study for a two-year diploma and receive a non-means-tested grant of £7,000 a year. Sue Bernhauser, chairwoman of the council, said: "Many people who do the diploma are doing it because they can get the fixed bursary, not because they're not up to the full degree."

A selfless academic at the University of Oxford has pledged to give £1 million of his earnings to charity over the course of his life. Toby Ord, a 30-year-old ethics researcher, said on 14 November that his donations to charities in developing countries could save a total of 500,000 years of healthy life. He is launching a society, Giving What We Can, to encourage others to do the same. The first to join has been his wife. Dr Ord will give up 10 per cent of his annual salary, plus any yearly earnings above £20,000 for the rest of his career.

Student loan chiefs collected five-figure bonuses this year despite the fiasco that left thousands to start university without money in their bank accounts. It was reported on 16 November that three executives at the Student Loans Company (SLC) took bonuses of more than £20,000 and seven others got at least £10,000. Up to 175,000 students are still reported to be waiting for maintenance money. An SLC spokeswoman said the bonuses were "based on a format" agreed in advance that reflected performance against a set of agreed targets.

Newer universities should abandon research and concentrate on teaching and scholarship, a report due to be published on 19 November says. The report from the think-tank Policy Exchange says that, as a minimum, there should be a return to "something like" the concentration of research funding produced by the 2001 research assessment exercise. But ministers should not "fix a number" of institutions allowed to receive research money, cautions the report, Innovation and Industry: The Role of Universities. "Instead, the Government must aim to judge the excellence it should fund with criteria that will avoid dilution of resources." Anna Fazackerley, director of education at Policy Exchange, said: "There has long been a deeply entrenched view within UK academia that good teaching can happen only alongside research and that all departments in all universities must therefore be research-based. It is now time to interrogate that assumption."

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