The week in higher education

April 8, 2010

Universities will have to set out agreed minimum standards for teaching hours, lecturers' performance and accommodation in new "student charters" announced on 1 April. The charters, unveiled by higher education minister David Lammy, will clarify legitimate grounds for student complaints to universities or the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Some see the move as a concession in advance of the conclusion of the review of fees later this year, which is expected to recommend a higher cap. The charters' structure will be agreed by a group led by Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, and Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students.

A science writer has won his appeal against a ruling in a libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association. The ruling on 1 April will allow Simon Singh to rely on a "fair comment" defence of his statements about chiropractors, for which he is being sued. The Court of Appeal overturned an earlier ruling that would have forced him to prove that his comments were factually correct to avoid a libel judgment against him. Robert Dougans, Mr Singh's lawyer, said: "The court's brave decision gives hope that important research on scientific matters will be protected."

The claim by a University of Glasgow professor that "only by science and technology generating inventions and wealth can we afford the luxury of art" provoked an outcry on 2 April. Responding to the remarks made in a letter to The Guardian by Ian Morgan, professor of molecular oncology at Glasgow, reader Giles Hooper said: "The claim is staggering in its narrow perspective and its blindness to empirical evidence ... Professor Morgan is a specialist in molecular oncology. Beyond the basics of keeping the labour force alive, there is little wealth creation to be had (in this field)."

Another week brought another departure from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, further straining the relationship between the government and its independent scientific advisers. This week it was the decision to criminalise the drug mephedrone that prompted a council member to quit. Eric Carlin said the move was "unduly based on media and political pressure", it was reported on 3 April. Mr Carlin is the seventh member of the ACMD to resign since the sacking last year of its former chairman, David Nutt.

Tristram Hunt, a lecturer in modern history at Queen Mary, University of London, has caused a split among Labour activists in Stoke-on-Trent amid claims he was parachuted in to stand as the party's candidate in the safe seat. The 35-year-old, who is a friend of Lord Mandelson and who makes regular appearances as a television historian, will face competition from Gary Elsby, the constituency party secretary, it was reported on 3 April. Mr Elsby said he would stand as an independent candidate for Labour "to give people a real choice".

With the launch of the election came yet another role for Lord Mandelson. The First Secretary, who is responsible for universities, has been given "full control" of Labour's general election campaign, it was reported on 4 April. Showing his mettle, Lord Mandelson last week responded to a revolt by business leaders over proposed National Insurance rises, saying: "No one likes tax increases, including business, but the university vice-chancellors didn't like belt-tightening or spending reductions either. We are not going to shy away from these hard decisions; that's what governments are for."

After days of media coverage, the student who stood up to Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge this week claimed the show's title. Alex Guttenplan, a natural sciences student at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, won scores of fans when one of his many correct answers prompted the tough quiz-master to sneer: "Good guess." "It wasn't a guess," the 19-year-old student responded. One of his admirers was moved to comment online: "Guys want to be him, girls want to be with him." The Emmanuel College team beat St John's College, Oxford by 315 points to 100 on 5 April.

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