The Week in Higher Education

May 6, 2010

As the dust settles on the general election, scientists will find that their voice in Parliament has diminished, a retiring MP has warned. It was reported on April that the number of MPs who had worked in scientific research at the doctoral level was set to fall from eight to just one after 6 May, while other champions of science were also set to leave politics. Phil Willis, the departing Liberal Democrat MP and former chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said: "There is a massive danger that science - because it will not have political champions - will struggle to have its voice heard."

A sex discrimination claim lodged against the Royal Institution by its former director was dropped last week after an out-of-court settlement. In a statement released on 28 April, the institution says that the two parties had "reached full agreement as to the terms for Baroness Greenfield's departure from the post of director". The settlement concludes an embarrassing episode for the 211-year-old institution that began in January when Baroness Greenfield was made redundant after 12 years in charge.

The sex lives of animals, as well as their births and deaths, are a mainstay of wildlife documentaries, but should they remain off limits to prying human eyes? The question has been raised by an academic, who argues in Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies that animals also have a "right to privacy". Brett Mills, senior lecturer in film and television studies at the University of East Anglia, writes: "We can never really know if animals are giving consent, but they often do engage in behaviour which suggests they'd rather not encounter humans." Dr Mills adds that putting cameras in birds' nests is "a form of CCTV", it was reported on 30 April.

The race for the post of professor of poetry at the University of Oxford has been dismissed as a "very sad little contest", it was reported on 1 May. Broadcaster Clive James said he would "rather throw himself off a cliff than throw his hat into the ring". The contest is being held a year after the resignation of Ruth Padel, who stepped down after it emerged that she had alerted the press to allegations of sexual harassment against her rival for the post, Derek Walcott. Mr James described the contestants as "a decent enough poet, Geoffrey Hill, running against two other unknown poets, some chap from The Guardian and some biographer".

Tuition fees could rise by £1,000 a year until they are almost five times their current level for some courses, according to reports. A mole quoted by The Sunday Times on 2 May said the plan was being considered by the review of student finance led by Lord Browne, and could result in fees of £14,000 a year to study science degrees. The newspaper reported a "source close to the review" as saying that Lord Browne wanted to create a free market in fees, although not in one fell swoop. Wes Streeting, president of the National Union of Students, said that lifting the cap was a "nightmare scenario".

The silence on higher education during the general election campaign was lamented by Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, on 4 May. Professor Smith, who is vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, said it was a "strange election" when the party that made most mention of the sector was the British National Party. He said answers were needed on how the next government would support universities in three key areas: students, research and internationalisation.

A "resurgance of biological determinism" cannot be blamed for keeping women out of public life, an academic has said. Simon Baron-Cohen, responding to the suggestion in The Guardian, said that the application of biological determinism could be sexist, but the theory itself was not. The director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge said on 4 May: "It is your brain type, not your sex, which predicts how you will behave. Some brain types are more common in one sex than another, but because an individual can be atypical for their sex, it is meaningless to try to predict a person's behaviour based on their sex."

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