The week in higher education

April 15, 2010

The brilliant University Challenge contestant who becomes an unlikely heart-throb is now a regular fixture on the news merry-go-round. So too are stories about the disappointment that awaited previous winners, including John Burke, whose team from The Open University won in 1999 and who is now a postman. This year, the Daily Mail focused on 2009's starlet, Gail Trimble, leader of the winning team from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, which was later disqualified. The paper cited her as evidence of the disappointment that may await this year's darling, Alex Guttenplan, winner with Emmanuel College, Cambridge. "So stunning was Ms Trimble's performance that she thrust herself into the limelight and had to turn down requests to pose for a lads' magazine," it said on 7 April. "She did not relish the attention, and has retreated into the academic world."

The long-haul life demanded by the academic conference circuit proved too much for one lecturer, who woke up in a hangar following a transatlantic flight. Kris Lines, lecturer in sports law at Staffordshire University, was woken by a mechanic 90 minutes after his flight landed in Vancouver, where he was due to speak at a conference. "I was dead to the world," he said on 9 April.

Football fans regularly grapple with the same problems as quantum physicists, it has been suggested. Writing on 10 April, comic Dara O Briain says that in football, as in quantum mechanics, "much is made of the moment when all the potential outcomes of something, the location of a photon of light, say, must reduce down to just one when a measurement is made". "This is high-powered stuff for physicists. It is, however, everyday talk for the average football fan," he adds. "We manage to keep all manner of different realities floating in our minds at all times. If only he'd passed to the man on the left, if only he'd remained injury free, if only he'd kept his pants on. That kind of stuff."

The barbed tongue of David Starkey was coaxed into action by Times Higher Education's own Laurie Taylor, when the historian made some pithy remarks about the looks, work and names of his female peers. In a forthcoming television interview with the THE columnist, Dr Starkey likens women historians' books to "historical Mills & Boon", and observes that the academics are usually "quite pretty" and most have names that "begin and end with 'A'". Amanda Vickery, professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London, responded on 11 April that his comments "can only be envy, as he can be charming face to face".

The decision by their party to remain silent on tuition fees until after the general election has not stopped one in four Labour parliamentary candidates signing a petition opposing any increase. It was reported on 11 April that almost a quarter of Labour's candidates - 177 - are "defying the government's refusal to state a policy" on the issue. The National Union of Students has pledged to lobby its members to support only candidates who agree that the fee cap should not rise.

An attempted coup at the Royal Institution failed this week, when members voted overwhelmingly to reject rebels' proposals to oust its governing council. The secret ballot on 13 April was instigated by supporters of Baroness Greenfield, who was made redundant in January after 12 years as director of the 211-year-old institution following allegations that she had left it in a precarious financial position.

"How geeks inherited the earth," The Guardian said on 13 April, as it asked scientists to explain why they are now "cool". First up was Brian Cox, professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester. He said: "There is a recognition that the real world is more rich, beautiful and satisfying than the vacuous meanderings of pseudoscience ... If my unscientific feeling is right, then these gentle shifts may herald a new golden age of science in the UK." Times Higher Education columnist Kevin Fong, lecturer in physiology at University College London, added: "This is science's time. The community is stronger than ever."

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