The week in higher education

February 18, 2010

With their scruffy hairstyles and hooded tops, the young people sitting behind David Cameron as he delivered a speech at the University of East London looked like students. But all was not as it seemed. Joseph Bitrus, president of UEL's student union, said on 10 February: "They are not our students. Afterwards I spoke with one of them and he said he had just joined the campaign a week ago and was learning how it worked." The Tories insisted the party-faithful were not handpicked to sit in camera-shot. "People were just seated in the order they arrived at the venue," a spokesman said.

Newspapers have been filled with tales of universities' budgetary woes in recent weeks. But for all their expertise, few headline-writers can have matched the succinctness of a letter-writer to The Guardian, who summed the situation up in six words. Nicholas Royle's letter on 10 February said: "Education, er, education, maybe, education (not)."

If it were possible to bottle the essence of the University of Oxford and sell it to the masses, would anyone want to buy it? The university could be about to find out, with plans for an "Eau d'Oxford": a range of perfumes designed to profit from its reputation. The idea was dreamt up by Oxford Limited, a company licensed to promote the university's name. One academic said on 11 February: "It will be chewing gum next, with the slogan: 'This is what the dons chew when they are thinking - it will help you think too'."

The news that popular historian Niall Ferguson has left his wife for feminist writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali prompted the Evening Standard on 11 February to assess the "rise of the international summit, a raunchy world of late nights, hotel bars and intellectual flirting". Harriet Sergeant, from the Centre for Policy Studies, told the newspaper: "Of course conferences are sexy ... The atmosphere is often electric. You see all these strangers eyeing each other up, wondering who they might be able to sleep with." Another commentator, referred to only as a friend of Professor Ferguson, went further still, describing the academic conference scene as the "international bonking circuit".

A biology lecturer at the University of Alabama is alleged to have shot dead three colleagues at a faculty meeting, including her head of department. Amy Bishop, who was educated at Harvard University, is reported to have been worried about her chances of securing a permanent post after being rejected for a job. A colleague said on 14 February that she had recently begun to "talk about her problems getting tenure in a very forceful and animated way, saying it was unfair". It was reported that in 1986, Dr Bishop shot dead her teenage brother at their home. Investigators ruled that it was an accident.

Over 40 per cent of lecture theatres and classrooms at the London School of Economics were deemed unsuitable for use, while a similar proportion of student digs were judged unfit for purpose at City University London, it emerged on 16 February. Information released by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, which dates from two years ago, reveals that scores of universities had estates that were judged to be "at serious risk of major failure or breakdown". The data show that more than 90 per cent of institutions had at least 10 per cent of their buildings judged to be below the "sound and operationally safe" category, and one in ten had at least 10 per cent of their estate judged to be inoperable.

There was sadness at The Robert Gordon University on 16 February when it was announced that principal and vice-chancellor Mike Pittilo had died. Professor Pittilo, who was 55, had been suffering from cancer, but had continued to work at the Aberdeen-based institution until the week before his death. John Harper, acting principal, said the university had "lost an inspirational leader who will be sadly missed". Professor Pittilo joined Robert Gordon in 2005 after a career in the life sciences.

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