The week in higher education

May 20, 2010

The "hardest exam in the world", in which the cream of Oxford graduates are challenged to write for three hours about a single word, has been dropped. For almost a century the exam has been set as part of the selection process for All Souls Fellows. It was described by a historian who passed it in 1964 as "too esoteric even for Oxford". Previous Fellows have included the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin and the judge Richard Wilberforce. However, Sir John Vickers, head of All Souls, said that in recent years the exam had proved less useful in the selection process. "We dropped it with some regret," he said on 15 May.

The term "freshers' week" is synonymous with drunkenness and debauchery and should be changed to "welcome week", it has been suggested. The traditional name for the first week of the new academic year has been ditched at the University of Manchester, and the Freshers' Ball has been rebranded the Biko Ball, in memory of the anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko, it was reported on 15 May. Vicky Thompson, welfare officer at Manchester students' union, said: "We want to get rid of the negative associations of freshers' week."

Former minister for students Lord Triesman may regret having left higher education for the goldfish bowl of the Football Association. Knives came out for the independent chairman of the FA on 16 May, after he was reported to have claimed that the Spanish and Russian football associations were trying to bribe referees. The Labour peer is alleged to have made the comments during a dinner with a female friend who secretly recorded the conversation. The woman also claimed that she had had an affair with Lord Triesman, who quit as minister for students in 2008. He resigned as head of England's 2018 World Cup bid after the comments were made public.

Renowned left-wing thinker Noam Chomsky has been barred from the Palestinian West Bank by Israeli immigration officers, sparking a freedom of speech row. It was reported on 17 May that the Jewish American professor was turned back while on a trip to give lectures at Birzeit University and the Institute for Palestinian Studies. He said the Israeli official who barred him had made it clear that "the government of Israel doesn't like the kinds of things I say, which puts them in the same category as every other government in the world". He added that the officer had also objected to the fact that he was giving lectures only in the Palestinian territory and would not be speaking at Israeli universities, which he said he had done "several times in the past".

The number of people applying for postgraduate study at the University of Oxford has overtaken undergraduate applications for the first time. The university said on 18 May that postgraduate applications rose from 13,551 last year to 17,510 this year, compared with 17,144 for undergraduate degrees. Jane Sherwood, Oxford's director of graduate admissions, said the recession was the "obvious factor" behind the increase. Paul Savage, a 26-year-old PhD student at Worcester College, Oxford, told The Times that postgraduate study appealed because it was "a fantastic lifestyle". On the differences with undergraduate life, he said: "It's best to view it as a job, go in the morning and get a good day's work done."

A former semi-professional squash player is to become the next head of the Higher Education Academy. Craig Mahoney is currently deputy vice-chancellor of Northumbria University, and is responsible for all learning and teaching activity at the institution. Professor Mahoney is to take up the new post this summer, but his appointment comes at a difficult time for the HEA, which faces losing a third of its core funding by 2012-13. Sir Bob Burgess, chairman of the HEA, said the organisation was at a "critical stage" in its development. "Craig will bring his wide-ranging experience in leading teaching and research and in initiating and managing change within higher education," he said.

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