The week in higher education

March 25, 2010

They are not usually considered to be bedtime-reading material, but a novel that started life as a student thesis has been named as a contender for a prestigious book prize. The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton, has been longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. The 24-year-old author got the work published three years ago after submitting it as her master's thesis while at university in New Zealand, it was reported on 17 March. The book concerns the aftermath of a sex scandal at a girls' school.

The turmoil continues at the Royal Institution following the decision to oust its director, Baroness Greenfield, in January. Plans have been drawn up to replace the entire governing body of the 200-year-old institution in protest at her treatment. The institution's 2,400 members were sent a letter by rebels informing them of a special meeting on 12 April, where a vote on the matter will be held. It was reported on 17 March that if a new council is installed, it would be free to reappoint Lady Greenfield.

An Ivy League university is battling a reputation as a "suicide school" following a spate of student deaths. The campus of Cornell University, in upstate New York, is set among a series of gorges spanned by bridges. So far this academic year, six students have died in suspected suicides, including two who jumped off the bridges on successive days, it was reported on 18 March.

The abolition of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has been cited in a critical report on Whitehall restructuring. The National Audit Office report says that in 2007, the year Gordon Brown became prime minister, 10 departments were overhauled. DIUS was abolished in 2009, less than two years after it was set up. Responsibility for universities moved to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The spending watchdog said on 18 March that at least £200 million a year was poured into redundancy payouts, new buildings and logos by the government between 2005 and 2009.

The University of Edinburgh has been accused of xenophobia for discriminating against students from England in favour of Scottish applicants. Headteachers branded Edinburgh "anti-English" on 20 March after learning that it had told its admissions tutors to give "additional weighting" to applicants from Scottish schools, with next preference being given to pupils from the North East of England.

"Easystudents jet in to UK universities", said The Sunday Times on 21 March, reporting that "no-frills airlines have spawned a new breed of students from Eastern Europe". Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire, told the paper that "if you see blondes on the streets of Luton, they are likely to be our students from the Baltic states". The university is close to London Luton airport, which is used by a number of budget airlines. The newspaper said that "critics are concerned that it is almost impossible to enforce repayment of loans" given to European Union students. The Sunday Telegraph took things further, claiming that British students are "losing out to European students at top universities".

A Jamie Oliver-style campaign is needed to purge schools, not of junk food, but of "junk history", according to a prominent academic. Glasgow-born Niall Ferguson, who teaches at Harvard University, argues in an essay that history is badly taught and undervalued by British schools. It was reported on 21 March that Professor Ferguson writes: "History matters. Many schoolchildren doubt this. But they are wrong, and they need to be persuaded they are wrong."

Jack Straw has described some cases of scientists being sued for defamation in the UK as "horrific". The justice secretary cited the case of Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, who was sued by a US company after raising doubts about one of its products at a conference. On 23 March, during a discussion on the progress of a libel reform working group, Mr Straw said he found the case "appalling".

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