The week in higher education

February 24, 2011




"Well done, Tony Blair in 2004 and well done, David Cameron today." Such sentiments may not be shared by universities whose teaching grant has been cut by 80 per cent or by students about to see tuition fees soar, but the changes matter not to Terence Kealey, vice-chancellor of the private University of Buckingham. Writing on 16 February, Dr Kealey said the fee cap rise would save England's sector from sinking to the level of continental Europe's "appalling" universities. Addressing students' fears, he said: "He who pays the piper picks the tune: universities will compete for students as valued clients and strive to enhance their experience." He added that the US, where competition is king, has "one of the best records, globally, on access to higher education, while countries such as France and Germany confer degrees almost exclusively on the children of the middle class". He also claimed that private funding would lead to better research and scholarship and guarantee academic objectivity. Three cheers for the coalition government, then.

There is a serious risk the research budget will be slashed in the next Comprehensive Spending Review if researchers do not stop complaining about their current settlement, according to Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust. Speaking during the Campaign for Science and Engineering's Science Question Time event on 16 February, Sir Mark said a "terrible cup-half-empty view" pervaded academia. "Science did well (in the CSR) compared with most other sectors. If we keep whingeing (ministers) will say: 'It is not worth funding them because they are always whingeing whatever we do.'?"

On 17 February, The Times outlined details of a "private memo" from the National Union of Students, which it said had been leaked by a disaffected member. The memo advises NUS officers that campaigning against high fees could backfire, which The Times said contradicted the public position of Aaron Porter, the NUS president. In an email to union members the same day, Usman Ali, NUS vice-president, attacked the "nasty little story". He said the memo had not been leaked, but published online, and was consistent with previous statements. "I am proud of the content we have provided and the guidance to help students' unions to try and secure better deals," Mr Ali said. Four days later, Mr Porter announced his intention to stand down as president next month.

A German minister who had been tipped as a future chancellor is fighting for his political life after allegations that he plagiarised chunks of his doctoral thesis. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Germany's defence minister, initially dismissed claims made in the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that he had copied entire passages without attribution in his law dissertation at the University of Bayreuth in 2007. On 22 February, the institution announced that the minister had asked for the doctorate to be retracted. Calls for Mr zu Guttenberg's resignation have intensified in light of his decision. The story is a matter of keen national interest, given the great store Germans set by academic qualifications.

Links between the London School of Economics and the Libyan authorities were cut this week as the institution responded to reports of bloodshed in the country. The LSE has close ties to the son of Libyan leader Mu'ammer Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who appeared on television this week to warn that the streets of Tripoli would run with "rivers of blood" if anti-government protests continued. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi has a PhD in governance and international relations from the LSE, and in 2009 donated £1.5 million to the school. In a statement on 21 February, the LSE announced it was severing ties with the Libyan government, and that activities funded by the Libyan leader's son were being shelved. David Held, one of his academic advisers during his time at the LSE, said watching him defend his father was "the stuff of Shakespeare and of Freud". "The man giving that speech wasn't the Saif I had got to know well over those years," Professor Held said.

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