The Week in Higher Education

February 17, 2011

The life of the climate scientist has not been an easy one as the debate with global warming sceptics has grown ugly over the past year or two. Now, one climate scientist has gone on the attack, suing a sceptic over remarks that critiqued his expertise. Nature reported on 10 February that Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, is suing Tim Ball, a former University of Winnipeg academic, over comments he made on the website Canada Free Press. Dr Ball labelled the suit an attempt to silence him as a sceptic: "A law set up to defend against menace is being used to muzzle people." But Professor Weaver's lawyer said: "This is not about whose science is right. It was a completely over-the-line attack."

A new "super-university" could be created in Wales under plans to merge at least three institutions. It was reported on 11 February that talks are planned between the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, Swansea Metropolitan University and the University of Wales Trinity Saint David - all of which are part of the University of Wales alliance. If the merger goes ahead, it is understood that the two remaining alliance members, Glyndwr University and the University of Wales, Newport, would be invited to join later. Leighton Andrews, the education minister, has told the sector that universities in Wales must "adapt or die".

The future of neuroscience in Britain is being put in jeopardy as drugs companies scrap research facilities and research council funding is cut. It was reported on 10 February that at least 30 research groups in the field may fold because of cuts proposed by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. The council has cut funding for neuroscience by £20 million over the next five years, it was reported, after ruling that it attracts too many successful grant proposals. Colin Blakemore, former head of the Medical Research Council, said: "This is disastrous. One of the most successful areas of science in Britain is going to be demonised because it is so successful."

"Pernicious, regressive and deeply regrettable" - that was The Daily Telegraph's verdict on the access agreements that universities will have to sign if they wish to charge tuition fees above £6,000 a year. The right-leaning press was up in arms over the idea that institutions must agree quotas for poor students admitted, which the Telegraph said was "tantamount to the comprehensivisation of our elite universities". The Daily Mail was also unimpressed. "This profoundly misguided idea...will damage our universities, undermining academic excellence just at a time of increased competition from America and the Far East," it said on 11 February, adding that the only way to encourage social mobility was to "fundamentally improve" state schools.

The Royal Society has called for drastic measures, including a fundamental reform of the A-level system, to break the "self-perpetuating cycle" that has resulted in the UK producing too few science graduates for higher education and industry. In a report on 15 February, the society argues that both the quantity and quality of 16- to 19-year-olds studying science and maths must improve. A particular worry is that in 2009, about a fifth of upper secondary institutions in England did not enter a single candidate for A-level physics. The society calls for a new baccalaureate-style A level to enable students to study a wider range and increased number of subjects.

Guidelines have been published for the future of the student charter. The Student Charter Group, chaired by Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, and Aaron Porter, president of the National Union of Students, issued its findings on 17 February. It concluded that every university should have a charter setting out the "mutual expectations" of institution and students. It says charters, which should be drafted with student representatives and reviewed annually, should "emphasise the importance of partnership between staff and students". They should cover expectations on facilities, teaching, assessment and feedback, and "students' obligations as learners".

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