The week in higher education

February 3, 2011

Revenge is a dish best served cold, not hot and steaming. But the adage appears to have been ignored by a maths professor at California State University, Northridge, who is accused of urinating on a colleague's door after a dispute. It was reported on January that 43-year-old Tihomir Petrov has been charged with two misdemeanour counts of urinating in a public place. Professor Petrov was apparently filmed urinating on the door of a rival's office on the San Fernando Valley campus after officials rigged up a camera to investigate puddles found outside the room.

Ahead of the rise in tuition fees, the tabloid press has been on a quest to find students who have taken extreme measures to cut their debt. On 30 January, under the headline "I lived in a tin shack to curb my student debt", The Mail on Sunday reported the tale of 22-year-old student Craig Smith, who is in the final year of a media studies degree at the University of Westminster. Last summer, Mr Smith flew to Africa "to stay in a slum for 20p a night" in a bid to cut his living costs, while gaining work experience with the BBC's East Africa Bureau. But things are about to get even tougher, the article warned. It suggested that "those with big families living in England could consider becoming permanently resident in one of the other home nations" to avoid the fee hike. For the London-centric press, a move to Scotland or Wales appears to be a fate just slightly worse than living in an African slum.

The impenetrable prose that condemns many academic publications to obscurity has been blamed for the savage cuts to public funding for arts and humanities courses. Writing on 30 January, Observer columnist Nick Cohen compared academia to the medieval church. He wrote: "A clerisy inhabits the arts, humanities and social science departments of the modern university as it inhabited the monasteries of Christendom. It speaks a language the laity cannot understand and cloaks its thought in obscurantist prose for fear that plain speaking will provoke accusations of heresy." While the battle to protect everything from public libraries to free books for children has been taken up with gusto, scholars who adopt an air of "unwarranted superiority" and write only for their peers are doing little to win the public's heart, he continued. "People write well when they have something to say. The willingness of too many academics to write badly has told their fellow citizens they are not worth listening to or fighting for."

The trebling of the tuition-fee cap has prompted the principal of a top-performing state school to take on consultants to help pupils find places at cheaper universities abroad. Simon Dennis, head of Hockerill Anglo-European College in Bishop's Stortford, said on 31 March that he feared many talented students could be put off university altogether when fees rise in 2012. To address the concern, he has hired a marketing firm to scour the top 40 overseas universities for details of every course taught in English. "We need to encourage our students to look beyond the UK boundaries ... We're already starting to see a drift away from home universities," he said.

One of Britain's longest-serving vice-chancellors and the convenor of Universities Scotland has been suspended from his job. Bernard King, who has been principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Abertay Dundee since 1992, had been suspended "pending investigation of a number of issues", the university said on 1 February. It added that the vice-principal and deputy vice-chancellor, Nicholas Terry, had also been suspended on 21 January. The university said that the reasons for Professor Terry's suspension "are separate from the issues relating to the principal's suspension". Steve Olivier, pro vice-chancellor for academic development, has been appointed acting principal and vice-chancellor pending the outcome of the inquiries. An unnamed source told The Courier newspaper: "It is extremely surprising because Bernard is so well known. He is widely thought of as the man who took a not particularly well thought of technical college and turned it into a very well thought of university."

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