The week in higher education

March 11, 2010

The oft-repeated claim that things have got so bad in British science that Stephen Hawking is leaving for greener pastures abroad re-emerged on 3 March. The Daily Mail said the professor of physics was considering a permanent move from the University of Cambridge to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada if a two-month visit this summer proved to be a success. Similar claims have been made in the past on the back of the professor's criticism of science policy and funding in the UK. However, as on previous occasions, Cambridge insisted last week that its most famous scholar "has no plans to leave".

A clash with an aide to Prince Charles has been blamed for the uncertainty surrounding the future of a unit that studies complementary medicine. The Centre for Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, headed by Edzard Ernst, reportedly faces closure next spring unless new financial backing is found. Professor Ernst claims that fundraising dried up after a row with an aide to the Prince of Wales in 2005. The spat focused on the scholar's criticism of a "deeply flawed" report commissioned by the prince that advocated complementary medicine. Professor Ernst claimed on 3 March that he had been "persona non grata" at Exeter since the row. The university and Clarence House denied the claims.

"Think you've got a shit job? Spare a thought for these graduates who will be making a career out of shovelling the stuff," chortled the Metro on 5 March. The paper highlighted the lengths that graduates in China would go to secure employment: 400 reportedly competed for a six-month internship in the hope of landing a job with the Jinan Sanitation Bureau in Shanghai. The candidates included graduates in architecture and accounting.

Sex-obsessed students at the University of Oxford made their near-weekly appearance in the papers on 6 March, along with obligatory pictures of their naked peers at the University of Cambridge. At the former, 15 undergraduate members of a drinking society called the Penguin Club were suspended after sending emails featuring derogatory descriptions of female students. At the latter, two natural sciences students - one male, one female - ensured they would get their faces (and other body parts) in the papers by stripping off to read "nude" headlines for a show broadcast on Cambridge University TV.

A mystery surrounding the theft of a 7ft stuffed gorilla more than 50 years ago has been solved, with student pranksters identified as the culprits. Alfred was the longest-surviving gorilla in captivity when he died at Bristol Zoo in 1948, and was stuffed and put on display in a local museum. He was stolen in March 1956 and found in a health centre at the University of Bristol 60 hours later. The story behind the kidnapping remained a secret until Fred Hooper, a Bristol alumnus, said on 5 March that he and two friends, fellow Bristol students, were to blame. He spilled the beans only after one of his fellow pranksters died.

Caution has proved to be a successful strategy for those managing the University of Oxford's endowment funds. Oxford University Endowment Management (OUEM) saw a loss of about 4.8 per cent on investments totalling about £1 billion in the year ending 31 July 2009. This compares favourably with leading US universities, which saw an average of 23 per cent wiped off the value of their endowments in the same year. Sandra Robertson, head of the OUEM, said on 8 March that her decision to rein in risky investments explained why the university had avoided double-digit losses. She said British universities "should not emulate the Yale model".

It may be a dog-eat-dog world, but not for bonobo apes. New research from Duke University in the US has found that the primates, who are among humans' closest relatives, will always opt to share food with fellow bonobos, even when they are hungry. Such charitable behaviour was previously believed to be unique to humans, it was reported on 9 March.

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