The week in higher education

April 14, 2011

A leading astronomer has caused consternation among scientists by accepting a prize that recognises "exceptional contributions to affirming life's spiritual dimension". Sir Martin Rees, former head of the Royal Society, won the £1 million Templeton Prize on 7 April. British Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto said: "In my view, the Templeton Foundation awards its prize to the most prominent scientist who is prepared to say there is no conflict between science and religion." Past winners of the annual prize, set up by Wall Street billionaire and "enthusiastic Christian" John Templeton, include Mother Theresa. Nick Cohen, columnist at The Observer, said: "There are questions that answer themselves. 'What first attracted astronomer royal Martin Rees to the £1m Templeton prize?' certainly looks like one of them."

A cluster of student suicides has forced a South Korean university to scrap a system that linked academic achievement to fee levels. The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology announced on 7 April that it was abolishing the system after a 19-year-old student became the fourth undergraduate to take their own life in as many months. Under the scheme, students with a grade point average of under 3.0 pay partial fees while those with a GPA of less than 2.0 pay the full amount: 7.5 million won (£4,160) a term.

A protest was held at the University of Greenwich on 9 April over plans to end recruitment to its single honours philosophy BA in 2011-12. More than 1,000 people also signed a petition demanding that managers rethink the plans, which campaigners fear could lead to the BA being shut down permanently. In a letter sent on behalf of a group of 44 philosophers, including 26 heads of department, Helen Beebee, director of the British Philosophical Association, says: "The core aim of any self-respecting university should be the pursuit of knowledge; but philosophy is unique in addressing the question of what knowledge itself is."

"Pen-pushers outnumber professors at university," The Sunday Times lamented on 10 April. Citing Higher Education Statistics Agency data, it said: "At some institutions, the vast majority of employees now work in marketing, legal compliance, human resources and other non-academic jobs." The University of Bradford was listed as having the lowest proportion of academics (33 per cent of staff). The Association of University Administrators had been considering how to fill a gap at its upcoming conference after David Willetts, the universities and science minister, pulled out. A public burning of copies of The Sunday Times might prove popular.

David Cameron's tenuous grasp of detail has earned him a lecture from universities. Speaking on 11 April, the prime minister said leading universities had a "terrible record" on admitting state school pupils, claiming the number had fallen over the past 20 years. "Not true", said the Russell Group. It said that the proportion of state school students at its institutions had grown faster than that for the sector as a whole since indicators were established in 1997. Mr Cameron also said it was "disgraceful" that only one black student began studying at the University of Oxford last year. Oxford said Mr Cameron had quoted "incorrect and highly misleading" figures, as it had admitted 41 students of black origin. Where did the Prime Minister learn his relaxed approach to facts and figures? Surely not at Oxford, where he was an undergraduate?

The University of Salford announced on 11 April that it was "embarking on a programme to deliver more effective administrative and professional services", with up to 218 posts affected. But "a significant number of new roles are being created which will be filled by affected staff", a spokesman said. Meanwhile, the University of Sheffield paused plans to cut pensions for its lowest-paid staff. The Unison and Unite unions will ballot for industrial action if the proposals go ahead.

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