The week in higher education

May 27, 2010

"Buy two years of a degree, get one free" was the deal proposed for poorer students in the Sutton Trust's submission to the ongoing review of fees and funding. The charity says: "The free first year would alleviate some of the risk and uncertainty that deter non-privileged students from applying to certain courses and institutions". Meanwhile, the University of Oxford's submission suggests that its students could be exempted from fees if they go on to "socially useful" work after graduating, such as teaching. It was reported on 21 May that Oxford proposes paying off their fees with a dedicated fund set up with alumni donations.

It was a case that tested the boundaries of academic freedom - and concluded that for academics in China, group sex is a freedom too far. Ma Xiaohai, a 53-year-old university professor, reportedly has been jailed for three and a half years for organising orgies. He was one of 19 swingers jailed after being charged under China's "group licentiousness" law, it was reported on 21 May. The academic's lawyer said his client would appeal. "The court is wasting society's resources - what they did was in their private space," he said.

Lord Mandelson's reign over the university sector has ended, and now he has confirmed his departure from the Shadow Cabinet to allow an MP to take his place. Pat McFadden, Labour MP for Wolverhampton South East, becomes Vince Cable's opposite number as shadow business secretary. David Lammy retains his brief as Labour's shadow higher education minister. Meanwhile, on 22 May, Mr Cable and David Willetts, the universities and science minister, were described as one of four sets of "love birds" forming close partnerships in the coalition government. The Times said both were "independent minds, book-writing and loving, and never quite in the inner circles".

The creation of "synthetic life" by the American geneticist Craig Venter attracted reams of coverage, prompting warnings that humans were pushing the boundaries of science too far. However, not everyone was convinced by the warnings. Writing on 22 May, Raymond Tallis, emeritus professor of geriatric medicine at the University of Manchester, said that Dr Venter's achievement - synthesising DNA from basic chemicals - was not the risky leap forward that the press coverage suggested. "We are a long way off making entirely synthetic life forms and even further from creating those unhappy creatures of the literary imagination, half-man, half-chemical, stalking the Earth, causing havoc and demanding citizenship," he said.

As the dust settles on the row involving Orlando Figes, the historian at Birkbeck, University of London who falsely claimed not to have written anonymous reviews belittling a rival's books, the scholar whose work he rubbished has reflected on the wider ramifications of the spat. Writing on 24 May, Rachel Polonsky described the stifling of academic debate in Stalin's Russia and argued that the "freedom of dialogue and constructive criticism among scholars" must be protected at all costs. But she concluded with this caveat: that criticism, constructive or otherwise, must be underpinned by honesty. "Academic disagreements in our society are not usually vicious, nor, to my knowledge, lethal," she said. "But even when nobody dies, it is a grave matter when a historian lies."

As Times Higher Education went to press, it was confirmed that Ralph Seymour-Jackson, the chief executive of the Student Loans Company, and John Goodfellow, chairman of the SLC, were to leave the troubled organisation. Sir Deian Hopkin, who led a review into the SLC and called for an overhaul of senior management in the wake of processing blunders, has been appointed the chairman on an interim basis. Universities were forced to make emergency loans to thousands of students at the start of the 2009-10 academic year after the SLC failed to process their applications in time.

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