The week in higher education

February 25, 2010

It is best known in the West for its annual world university ranking, but on 19 February, Shanghai Jiao Tong University found itself in the spotlight for less welcome reasons. The Chinese institution is mired in controversy over a series of online attacks on Google and other US firms, targeting trade secrets, computer codes and the email addresses of Chinese human-rights activists. Sources close to a US-led investigation into the affair are said to have traced the attacks to Shanghai Jiao Tong and a Chinese vocational college. A spokesman for the former said that if the allegations were true, "we'll alert related departments and start our own investigation".

A US pharmaceutical firm has said it was not its intention to "stifle academic debate" after dropping a British libel action against a Danish scientist. GE Healthcare sued radiologist Henrik Thomsen after he criticised the use of its drug, Omniscan, which is injected into patients before MRI scans. The drug contains a toxic metal, gadolinium, and its injection has now been halted for a group of kidney patients, some of whom have developed a rare condition, nephrogenic systemic fibrosis (NSF). In a statement on 19 February, Professor Thomsen maintained that "there is an association between the chemical formulation of gadolinium-based contrast agents and NSF". However, he said he accepted that GE Healthcare had not known that Omniscan might cause NSF when it marketed the drug.

The question of whether they inhaled while puffing on a joint during their undergraduate days has plagued many politicians. But the next generation of leaders may face even trickier questions if reports of heroin dealing at the University of Oxford are to be believed. It emerged on 20 February that Christ Church emailed students to warn them off the class-A drug after receiving a tip-off that heroin was available in college. The memo said there was a "considerable drugs culture" at Christ Church.

Superheroes should sign up to a new code of conduct limiting them to one superpower each to avoid "violating science", an academic has said. Comic-book heroes typically have more than one power - Spiderman, for example, can both crawl up walls and use his clairvoyant "spider sense". But speaking on 22 February, Sidney Perkowitz, professor of physics at Emory University in the US, called for such excesses to be curbed. "If you violate science too much, then you are in trouble," he said.

They absorb £4 million a year in public funding, but now homeopathic treatments have been denounced as virtually useless by a group of MPs. A report published on 22 February by the Commons Science and Technology Committee says that the treatments have no benefit beyond the placebo effect. It recommends that the Government cease funding both homeopathic treatment and research, and calls on it to set out its view on the "ethics of prescribing placebos". The report was backed by most but not all of the MPs on the committee.

In a move that will give hope to those opposing a rise in the tuition fee in England, a leaked report has revealed that the Northern Ireland fees review panel will recommend that the cap on fees should not be lifted. It emerged on 23 February that the review, chaired by Joanne Stuart, head of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, will recommend retaining the cap on top-up fees and making a detailed examination of the National Union of Students' alternative blueprint for funding, which proposes a progressive tax on graduates in place of a fee at the point of access.

The inexorable rise of the manager was highlighted on 23 February, when it was revealed that the number working in universities had risen more than three times as rapidly as the number of academics in recent years. Although the number of scholars has risen by about 10 per cent since 2003-04, the number of managers has rocketed by 33 per cent. Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said the figures would fuel "concern that the money invested in the sector has not been well spent".

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