The Week in Higher Education

December 9, 2010

Brian Cox has revealed that he was taken to task for describing astrology as "a load of rubbish" on a BBC show, but the mild-mannered physicist stuck to his guns. Presenting the RTS Huw Wheldon lecture on 1 December, the University of Manchester professor said: "The BBC asked me for a statement after (it received) some criticism. So I said: 'I apologise to the astrology community for not making myself clear. I should have said that this new-age drivel is undermining the very fabric of our civilisation.' The statement wasn't issued by the BBC complaints department."

Students at the University of Cambridge drew on Wittgenstein to express the depth of their disgust at Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. In her Daily Telegraph column on 2 December, Allison Pearson recounted a visit to the student occupation of the university's Old Schools building. "One guy carries a placard which announces that Nick Clegg is a Rabbit," she writes. "On the other side, it says, 'Nick Clegg is a Duck.' 'Er, why is Nick Clegg a rabbit and a duck?' I ask. 'It's from Wittgenstein,' he explains, 'It's about ambiguity. It's the same in politics; Nick Clegg can't oppose tuition fees and support them. There is no integrity. It's the most outrageous sell-out imaginable.'" Ms Pearson observed: "You get a better class of insult in Cambridge."

Meanwhile, student protesters at the University of Oxford used sartorial satire after taking offence at comments made by the leader of Oxfordshire County Council. In a comment posted on Twitter, Keith Mitchell observed of a student protest outside his office: "County Hall invaded by an ugly, badly dressed student rabble. God help us if this is our future." Oxford students responded with a second protest, this time dressed in dinner jackets, it was reported on 2 December. The now-infamous photographs of Oxford's Bullingdon Club in the 1980s and early 1990s show that Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne were also once part of what some might call a "badly dressed student rabble".

Labour shadow chancellor Alan Johnson remains publicly and forcefully at odds with his leader on the idea of a graduate tax. In an interview published on 4 December, Mr Johnson seemed at first to get behind Ed Miliband's plans for a new model of higher education funding. "What we'll be looking for is something that is Treasury-proof and that will guarantee a level of funding from the state," Mr Johnson said. "The fact that no one's introduced a graduate tax doesn't mean it can't be done." So did he think a graduate tax was possible? "Well, I don't think it could be done," said Mr Johnson, in an answer that spoke volumes about levels of unity on the Labour benches.

There was a glimmer of good news for universities this week as reports suggested that the government would lift quotas limiting recruitment of overseas academics. The UK Border Agency is likely to end visa allocations for individual employers on the number of staff they can hire from outside the European Economic Area, it was reported on 4 December. The new rules come into force in April, when the government introduces a cap of 21,700 for the yearly number of skilled migrants from outside the EEA. And a requirement that skilled migrants must hold a degree is also likely to help universities. Whether they will be able to gain enough visas in a free-for-all with other sectors remains to be seen.

An MP's Freedom of Information investigation has found that the University of Oxford admitted just one black Briton of Caribbean descent for undergraduate study last year. It also found that "of more than 1,500 academic and lab staff at the University of Cambridge, none are black", it was reported on 7 December. The MP warned that universities must "serve the country" not just those who "happen to walk through their doors", and that Oxbridge cannot be allowed to spend taxpayers' money "entrenching inequality instead of addressing it". Who was this campaigner? None other than David Lammy, Labour's former higher education minister, showing teeth rarely seen during his time in ministerial office.

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