The week in higher education

February 11, 2010

The British Homeopathic Association has been accused of misleading MPs over the scientific evidence for alternative medicine. The association presented several scientific reviews as offering support for homeopathy in its submission to an inquiry by the Commons Science and Technology Committee. However, Edzard Ernst, professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said the BHA's presentation of his study had been "grossly misleading". Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrats' Science Spokesman, said on 6 February: "It is extremely disappointing to be fed misrepresentations of science, whether it's deliberate or incompetent."

In one of the more unlikely higher education stories of recent months, a former registrar at the University of Bath has been unmasked as a spanking fanatic who offered forged degree certificates to women who let him smack and cane them on film. Karl Woodgett, who was senior assistant registrar at Bath, was given a suspended jail sentence after admitting conspiracy to make false documents. The court heard that he targeted African women, telling them that he was conducting a "pain management study". Writing in The Observer on 7 February, columnist Victoria Coren said: "A degree earned by spanking proves, surely, that the individual is flexible, determined and eager to please. I'd employ those women over a knee-jerk essay writer any day."

The US space agency Nasa is facing a future without manned missions to the Moon after funding was axed. But it has other projects to make up for the disappointment, including a James Bond-style personal flying machine designed by engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The mini-aircraft, called the Puffin, stands 12ft high, has a 13ft wingspan, and allows the pilot to stand upright and "shoot into the sky vertically", it was reported on 7 February.

Several British private schools are considering joining forces to open a fee-paying university on the lines of an American liberal-arts college. The plan being considered by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference was drawn up by Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham. It was reported on 7 February that the new institution would appeal to those concerned about "impersonal teaching and oversized classes at traditional universities". David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Secretary, said it would be "blinkered" to oppose such a venture "just because it was privately run".

The "crisis" engulfing higher education made further headlines on 8 February, when The Guardian said that it had "learnt" that universities were "preparing to axe thousands of teaching jobs, close campuses and ditch courses". It pulled together previously reported plans for redundancies at King's College London, the universities of Leeds and Westminster and the closure of the University of Cumbria's Ambleside campus, among others. In response, Lord Mandelson stuck to the tough line adopted after earlier claims of crisis, accusing university heads of "gross exaggeration" and "extreme language". However, this was at odds with the relatively restrained quotes provided by vice-chancellors, who spoke of the need for a "rethink" in light of the budget reductions. The real fuel to the fire came from the University and College Union, which claimed that as many as 15,000 posts, the majority of them academic, could go in the next few years.

Major science budget cuts are "inevitable" whichever party wins the general election, the Conservative Shadow Science Minister has said. In an interview on 9 February, Adam Afriyie said that cuts were necessary because the UK "is virtually bankrupt". In a second startling admission, Mr Afriyie said his dream was to be a "sharp multi-tool in a Conservative government toolkit". Asked about his comment last month that ministers should be able to sack advisers "if they just don't like them", he said: "I was referring to personal advisers, not scientific ones. It would be unwise to fire experts you disagree with because that undermines the basis of impartial advice."

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