The Week in Higher Education

January 27, 2011




He may be known as "Two Brains", but universities minister David Willetts has always relied on four eyes - until now. Mr Willetts has shed his spectacles thanks to laser eye surgery and on 20 January made a public appearance sans glasses for Channel 4's new topical comedy show, 10 O'Clock Live. Could he be hoping that his new look will make him more approachable to "the kids" as he continues to advocate the reform of student finance?

A snap of eight female Oxbridge students in their smalls halfway up a ski slope got The Sunday Telegraph in a lather on 23 January. That the photo of the young women stripped to their underwear featured prominently was predictable enough, but so were the indignant "news" stories accompanying the pictures. Among the activities reported to have taken place on the ski trip was a competition in which students scored points for smashing an egg in the most creative way. The winners put an egg between the buttocks of one team member, while another smashed it with a wine bottle. "They then ate the egg," the newspaper reported. The paper's leading article noted that such behaviour "might occasion an outbreak of tutting among respectable people".

Behaviour exhibited by users of social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook could be described as "modern madness", according to an academic expert. Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, argues in a new book that such technology is making us "less human". In Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, she says she has witnessed "pathological" behaviour, such as mourners at funerals checking their iPhones. Professor Turkle's assessment, reported on 24 January, will be music to the ears of academics fed up with students glued to Facebook during lectures, but also comes as interest in the use of social media in teaching is growing.

Scientists are being subjected to shocking levels of personal vilification, according to Sir Paul Nurse. In a BBC documentary aired on 24 January, the new president of the Royal Society urged scientists to take on the critics. "This is far too important to be left to the polemicists...in the media," he said. "We've got an unholy mix of the media and the politics...distorting the proper reporting of science, and that's a real danger to us." He added that the "Climategate" affair, in which scientists at the University of East Anglia were accused of deliberately exaggerating the evidence for man-made climate change, was "the greatest scientific scandal that just didn't take place".

Meanwhile, the Commons Science and Technology Committee has concluded that UEA's Climategate inquiries were not sufficiently transparent and failed to investigate key issues properly. UEA launched two independent inquiries in November 2009, both of which followed the previous incarnation of the Science and Technology Committee in largely exonerating the researchers. In a report published on 25 January, the current committee is particularly critical of the review panel led by Lord Oxburgh, concluding that its report "reads like an executive summary" seemingly rushed out "to be helpful to UEA". The MPs also criticise the panel led by Sir Muir Russell for failing to investigate fully the "serious allegation" that researchers had deleted emails to avoid their being released under the Freedom of Information Act.

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Blue-skies research should get more European funding, UK vice-chancellors have argued. In a paper published on January, Universities UK calls on European politicians to increase the pot for pure research, arguing that the tactic will boost European economies. UUK says that the Framework Programme - through which European research funds are allocated - should receive more cash after 2013. It goes on to argue that the European Research Council, which funds blue-skies research, should receive a greater proportion of this larger pot. "Any move towards a results-based funding regime may deter risky research," UUK warns.

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