The week in higher education

June 30, 2011

• It may not live in a pineapple under the sea, but a new species of mushroom will certainly join the ranks of nautical nonsense after being named in honour of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants. The fungus, found in the forests of Borneo and named Spongiforma squarepantsii by researchers at San Francisco State University, is said to have a musty smell and is shaped much like a sea sponge, it was reported on 22 June. The researchers said they were inspired to name the mushroom after the cartoon fry cook when they looked at it under a microscope and saw that its spore-producing area looked like a seafloor carpeted in tube sponges.

• David Willetts, the universities and science minister, is in "secret talks" with banks about offering loans direct to students and cutting the government out of the equation, according to one report. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills "proposed that students taking private loans would be counted outside the allotment of places each university is given by the government, making them attractive to colleges aiming to increase their cash flow", it was reported on 26 June. Universities need a rock-solid source of funding - and who better to provide that than banks? The past few years have proved their steadfast reliability.

• BPP, the UK's biggest private higher education provider, is becoming a bogeyman to some. Carl Lygo, the firm's chief executive, had said that BPP was in talks with 10 universities about taking on outsourced administrative services, where it could "add expertise in the back-office functions". "What expertise?" asked comedian David Mitchell in his Observer column on 26 June. "Expertise in administering, say, Bristol University that the people currently administering Bristol University don't possess but a new company that's never done it before is going to be brimming with? Won't they just employ the same people to do the job but pay them less or sack a few?"

• The head of China's government has been awarded the King Charles II Medal by Britain's Royal Society for "one of the most ambitious national research investment programmes the world has ever seen". Sir Paul Nurse, the Royal Society's president, said on June that the award was "given in recognition of heads of state and government who have displayed commitment to science and a belief in what it can achieve for their people". He added that the progress of science "thrives on transparency and cooperation" and requires "freedom of thought and openness to new ideas".

• Three leading global research funders will launch their own open-access journal aimed at rivalling top publications such as Science, Nature and Cell. The journal, bankrolled by the Wellcome Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Max Planck Society, hopes to attract the best research from across the life sciences with the promise of rapid peer review, minimal revisions and, at least in the short term, no article processing charges. Sir Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said at a press conference on June: "This will be a journal for scientists edited by scientists."

• More than 40 senior humanities academics have resigned from the Arts and Humanities Research Council's peer review college in protest against references to the "Big Society" in the council's delivery plan. The academics had given the council until June to take "clear steps" to remove the five references to David Cameron's flagship social policy. The campaign's leader, Thom Brooks, reader in political and legal philosophy at Newcastle University, said he expected many more of the 1,300 members of the peer review college to resign in the coming weeks.

• The full scale of the challenge facing graduate job-seekers was made clear on 28 June, with reports that 83 people are applying for every vacancy at the UK's largest firms. The figure was revealed in a survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters, which said that the country's top employers now receive 150 applications per job. The survey was of more than 200 firms; it is carried out every two years.

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