The week in higher education

March 24, 2011

David Willetts has frequently urged universities to make more information available for students - but the University of York has taken things a step too far. In an accidental leak, reported on 17 March, the university published the personal details of nearly 17,000 students online, including their addresses, A-level results and phone numbers. The campaign group Privacy International claimed that the error was among the largest breaches of privacy in Britain. York has launched an investigation and informed the Information Commissioner, who can fine organisations up to £50,000 for breaking data protection law.

The London School of Economics has appointed an interim director following the resignation of Sir Howard Davies over the school's links with the Libyan regime. Judith Rees will take up the post from 2 May until a permanent director is appointed. She is currently director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the LSE, and was pro-director of the school from 1998 to 2004. Her appointment, announced on 17 March, comes in the wake of Sir Howard's decision to step down earlier this month.

When 26 historians wrote to The Times earlier this month warning against proposals to switch to an alternative voting system in the UK, one of their number remarked on how unusual it was for 26 historians to agree about anything. The harmony did not last long. On 18 March, a rival group of 67 historians wrote a second letter to claim that the first lot had got it wrong. "They claim to speak for historians, indeed for history, in defending first-past-the-post," the letter says. "But on any such serious political question, historians are as divided as the population at large."

Scottish universities have attacked plans to cut £3 million from the country's research pools, which support interdisciplinary research. Research pooling brings together departments from different institutions and currently receives £20 million in funding. University principals said on 18 March that the 15 per cent cut proposed by the government would damage Scotland's research base. Pete Downes, principal of the University of Dundee, described the scheme as the "jewel in the crown of Scottish research". "This could stall progress, or even throw it into reverse," he said.

A Canadian academic who criticised her "very stupid" students on Facebook has apologised, while one of her peers has suggested that such attitudes may be widespread. Bianca Baggiarini, a teaching assistant in the sociology department at York University in Toronto, posted the offending comments on the social networking site last month. "My student's papers are making me dumber, so very stupid; by the minute," she wrote. "Please, make them, (sic) stop. They are infecting me with there (sic) huge and apparent stupidity, and I fear they will start to effect (sic) in my opinion the way I myself right (sic) papers." Nancy Mandell, chair of the department, said on 20 March that the teaching assistant accepted her comments were "regrettable and inappropriate". However, Hans Rollmann, a tutorial assistant at the university, said that it was unfair to single out Ms Baggiarini. "It's a much wider and more systemic problem of respect on campus," he said.

The vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University has accused his peers of failing to consider the affordability of tuition fees for poorer students, as he announced plans to charge less than £6,000 for many courses in 2012. Malcolm Gillies said on 20 March that he was planning a tuition fee structure that took account of "affordability for students who will incur a real debt that they may live with for 30 years". He is the first vice-chancellor to announce that he intends to set course fees at below the £6,000 threshold, despite the government insisting that those charging over this lower limit should be the exception rather than the rule. Professor Gillies said the rush to charge higher fees suggested that "there has not been a really serious attempt to see how you might reduce costs in the interests of affordability for the student".

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