The week in higher education

April 22, 2010

Sociology will live on at the University of Birmingham - but it will lose one of its degree courses. The university's council approved a series of changes to the department of sociology on 14 April, following proposals to shut it down and put 12 staff at risk of redundancy. The new plans will be implemented without compulsory redundancies. William Edmondson, University and College Union branch president, said: "This is certainly an improved position from the starting point."

The scientists at the heart of the Climategate email scandal were disorganised, poor with figures and naive, but not dishonest. Those are the findings of an independent review of the work conducted at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, which found itself at the centre of a storm of controversy after leaked emails led to allegations of misconduct. Lord Oxburgh, who led the review, said on 14 April that while there were problems with the unit's operations, there was "absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever".

Bendy straws and a Lear jet were among the demands made by Sarah Palin, the Republican former governor of Alaska, ahead of a lucrative speaking engagement at California State University, Stanislaus. The former vice-presidential candidate's requirements were uncovered when a contract for the event was fished out of a bin by Stanislaus students. She also demanded the vetting of audience questions, it was reported on 15 April.

The news that the libel case against Simon Singh had been dropped by the British Chiropractic Association was greeted with joy by campaigners on 16 April. The science writer was sued by the BCA after he claimed that it promoted "bogus" treatments in an article in The Guardian newspaper. The BCA dropped the case, which has cost Dr Singh £200,000 in legal bills, after a court ruled that the writer did not have to prove his claims were fact to avoid a libel ruling.

The decision by a Cambridge academic to post anonymous reviews gushing with praise for her husband's work and savaging his rivals backfired spectacularly. Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, distanced himself from the reviews, posted on the online bookseller Amazon under the pseudonym "Historian", after they raised the hackles of his peers. "Historian" praised Professor Figes for his "superb storytelling skills", simpering: "I hope he writes forever." The same reviewer dismissed as "dense" and "pretentious" the work of historian Rachel Polonsky, who had previously written a critical review of Professor Figes' work. On 16 April it emerged that the reviews, good and bad, had been written by Cambridge law lecturer Stephanie Palmer - Professor Figes' wife.

Talks on next year's pay deal remain deadlocked, with campus unions calling on the employers to make a "credible" offer. The five higher education unions met with the Universities and Colleges Employers Association on 19 April, with no improvement on the existing offer of a non-consolidated 0.25 per cent rise for 2010-11. The unions have made a claim for 4 per cent, and want Ucea to commit to a national scheme on avoiding redundancies - but the association says it has no mandate on the latter from its members. The University and College Union said it was "essential that the employers come back with a credible offer to avoid a dispute". Ucea said the cost of a 4 per cent increase would be about £500 million. The two sides will meet again on 5 May.

The University of Cumbria had to be given a cash advance to pay staff wages last month. The university, which is heavily in debt, sought help from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to tide it over. Trevor Curnow, University and College Union branch secretary, said on 19 April: "My understanding is Hefce has advanced us money from next year's allowance - so we're being subbed from Hefce." Peter McCaffery, vice-chancellor, confirmed that the university had "applied for a cash advance to see us though this particular period".

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