The week in higher education

June 2, 2011




Parents, teachers and admissions officers will be hoping that a little stardust sprinkled by Michelle Obama will achieve what widening-participation initiatives have struggled to do: convince bright young people from poorer backgrounds that Oxbridge is right for them. Ms Obama visited the University of Oxford on 25 May with a group of 37 girls from a London comprehensive where more than half of pupils receive free school meals and 90 per cent are non-white. In an address to the girls, she said: "Just look at this! A renowned university that has trained so many of the world's brightest minds and greatest leaders. All of us believe that you belong here, too." Ms Obama's words will no doubt prove a fillip for the girls in question - and perhaps for Oxford, too, which David Cameron recently accused of having a "disgraceful" record on black student admissions.

The London School of Economics has set tuition fees at £8,500 for 2012-13, £500 more than the figure voted for by its academic board. The school's council, which set the fee on 25 May, said that by charging below the maximum level of £9,000, it was "sending a clear message that the LSE welcomes students from all backgrounds". However, the LSE Students' Union expressed its disappointment. Charlotte Gerada, its general secretary, said: "Picking the £8,500 option looks incredibly weak and tokenistic." The LSE may feel that the criticism is a little unfair, given that it is the only one of the 16 English members of the Russell Group not to have plumped for £9,000.

Following reports that Hitler proposed killing Allied forces with poisoned sausages, a scholar's work has provoked press claims that the Nazis dreamed of creating an army of "talking" dogs. The Third Reich's interest in canine abilities is detailed in Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, written by Jan Bondeson, senior lecturer in the department of medicine at Cardiff University. According to a Daily Mail report on 25 May, Dr Bondeson found that the Nazis, who thought dogs had near-human intelligence, tried to teach them to "speak", read and spell. Sadly, no mention was made of their musical ability, ruling out a headline about their Bach being worse than their bite.

Research Councils UK and the Higher Education Funding Council for England have agreed to work together to spearhead the transition to open-access publishing of research. The two bodies have pledged to work with other research funders, learned societies and publishers to "support a managed transition to open access over the medium term". On 28 May, Astrid Wissenburg, director of partnerships and communications at the Economic and Social Research Council and a member of the RCUK Impact Group, said: "Open access is a wonderful idea, but it needs to be implemented in a way that is sustainable and doesn't disturb existing research cultures."

Sir Martin Harris has stepped down as director of fair access on medical grounds. Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said Sir Martin, who is to undergo treatment for cancer, had been "superb" in managing the government's expectations while "encouraging universities to play their...part in widening participation and fair access". Sir Graeme Davies, the former vice-chancellor of the University of London, will take on the role on a three-month interim contract, it was reported on 28 May.

Student and academic bodies across the UK are being urged to follow the lead of a group of academics at the University of Oxford and submit motions of no confidence in the policies of David Willetts, the universities and science minister. The campaign - launched at www.noconfidence.org.uk on 31 May - is attempting to build a nationwide movement against what its backers call the government's "chaotic" reforms. Almost 150 academics at the University of Cambridge have signed their own motion calling on the institution to state that it has no confidence in Mr Willetts' policies. Oxford dons will debate their motion on 7 June.

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