The week in higher education

February 4, 2010

Universities have been urged to take the "brief window through which they might escape and be true to themselves" as the Government strengthens its hold over the sector. Writing in The Guardian on 26 January, columnist Simon Jenkins said vice-chancellors should be "very afraid" of forthcoming cutbacks and attempts to rein in their autonomy. But they also have an opportunity to "break free from 20 years of subservience", he said. By abandoning government teaching funding and charging full fees, with bursaries for poorer applicants, they could "do what they are supposed to do - teach those who come to their door what they want to learn, and make their own decisions on how to finance it".

A report showing that the university participation gap between the rich and poor is finally starting to close was hailed as "unqualified good news" by Bahram Bekhradnia, head of the Higher Education Policy Institute, in last week's Times Higher Education. Yet that did not stop several national newspapers using the study to bash the sector. The Daily Telegraph reported on 28 January that "children from poor families are being failed in the race for university places", while The Daily Mail said that "the gulf between rich and poor students has widened". Both chose to focus on figures over a 15-year period, rather than the substantial improvement in the data for the past five years.

Researchers have been accused by French gynaecologists of adopting a "totalitarian" approach to female sexuality after they declared that the existence of the G-spot may be a myth. A study published last month by researchers at King's College London found that the existence of the G-spot was apparently a matter of opinion. However, on 29 January, the French medics insisted that it did exist in around 60 per cent of women. Pierre Foldes, a leading French surgeon, said the King's College study "shows a lack of respect for what women say".

The hacking of emails and documents from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit was probably the work of a foreign intelligence agency, according to the Government's former chief scientist. Pinning the blame on spies, Sir David King said on 1 February that the documents, which were seized on as evidence that scientists had manipulated data to strengthen the case for man-made climate change, were used to deliberately destabilise the Copenhagen climate conference last December.

The student vote is being mobilised ahead of the general election in an attempt to force individual parliamentary candidates to pledge to oppose any rise in tuition fees. A National Union of Students campaign, launched on 1 February, identifies a "hotlist" of 20 areas where the student vote could make a difference. Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham and Sheffield are among the key battlegrounds cited.

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Barack Obama may have enjoyed a stratospheric rise to the White House, but his days of aiming for the stars appear to be over after he scrapped plans to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2020. The US President said axing the lunar missions was a vital step towards America "living within its means once again". But Michael Griffin, a former head of Nasa, said the move was "disastrous". "It means the US has decided it's not going to be a significant player in human space flight for the foreseeable future," he said on 2 February.

In a case that indicates either rankling professional jealousy or serious abuse of the peer-review process, a group of stem-cell experts claim that a small group of scientists are vetoing high-quality science from publication in journals. They allege that in some cases it is being done to stifle research that is in competition with their own, it was reported on 2 February. The group of 14 stem-cell researchers have written to journal editors to complain. However, Philip Campbell, the editor of Nature, said: "Last year we used about 400 reviewers in stem-cell and developmental biology. The idea that there's some privileged clique is utterly false."

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