The Week in Higher Education

October 28, 2010




Unexceptional at school and idle at university - such were the modest beginnings of Stephen Hawking's academic life. In a rare public lecture reported on 20 October, the renowned physicist said that his attitude to work was transformed when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. "When you are faced with an early death, it makes you realise that life is worth living and that there are lots of things that you want to do," the University of Cambridge professor told an audience at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Of the many responses to the Browne Review, few have been as biting as the parody on Twitter running under the hashtag @Lord_Browne. The anonymous twitterer set up the account before the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October confirmed the funding cuts anticipated by Browne. The review panel recommended that fees should rise significantly to make up for the loss of teaching funding, a move welcomed by members of the research elite, including Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group. The tweets include: "It's about time the little blighters started paying their own way" and "I really wish @RussellGroup would stop sending me flowers. Wendy, thanks but it's getting embarrassing."

Michael Gove was quick to point the finger at his Liberal Democrat colleague Vince Cable when he was challenged by a member of the public angered by the coalition's plans for higher education reform, it was reported on 21 October. The Conservative education secretary was heckled in Westminster by a passer-by over the planned rise in tuition fees. "Nothing to do with me," he replied, "that's all (business secretary) Vince Cable's department. At least at my school they taught me manners."

In the wake of the deepest public spending cuts for decades, newspapers might have had little room left for the wacky research findings that regularly grace their pages. However, the headline "Penguins are not gay, just misunderstood" in The Daily Telegraph on 21 October suggests that, cuts or no cuts, some findings are too tempting to ignore. The Telegraph said that scientists at the Centre of Functional and Evolutionary Ecology in Montpellier, France found that male king penguins observed in zoos engaged in "same-sex flirting" only while waiting to find a mate. All the "homosexual" penguins studied went on to choose heterosexual partners.

The veneration of Brian Cox, who received an OBE for services to science last week, continued in a gushing profile in The Daily Telegraph, which described him as "the sexiest thing in science", "impossibly youthful" and "a ray of sunshine". Interviewer Bryony Gordon also said that the University of Manchester physicist had "enthralled men and women alike", and that "all the women in the office started drooling when I mentioned that I was going to interview him". Professor Cox wasn't the only one to bask in her praise on 23 October - she hailed David Willetts, the universities and science minister, as "one of the few men with an IQ to rival Cox". No doubt Mr Willetts will be delighted, although Professor Cox's take on the government's decision to spare science from the worst cuts in the spending review will please him less. "I applaud (Chancellor George) Osborne loudly," he said, omitting to mention his intellectual doppelganger.

The coalition government's decision to maintain funding for research, in cash terms at least, appears to have had the desired effect of preventing a major brain drain. Among the researchers who warned that they would leave for greener pastures if the budget was cut significantly was Pete Coffey, a stem-cell specialist at University College London, who had been courted by the University of California, Santa Barbara. Although it announced last week that it would award Professor Coffey $4.8 million (£3.06 million) over six years, he said that his work in California would only be part-time and that he would keep his base in London. After all the talk of cuts, he was "pleasantly stunned by the Comprehensive Spending Review and the maintenance of level funding for research", he said on 23 October.

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