The week in higher education

July 7, 2011

• Government ministers have long argued that student loans do not constitute debt in the usual sense because they are paid off only by graduates earning good salaries. But the message seems not to have got through to one University of Exeter student. Rimas Julius Taminskas, 20, used a fake gun to hold up a shop, later telling police he was desperate to pay off university debts of £1,000 after he lost his job at McDonald's. He was caught after the shopkeeper hit him with a tin of food, it was reported on 30 June.

• An "X Factor for academics", in which 10 young researchers are being given the chance to broadcast to the country, has provoked scorn in some quarters. The New Generation Thinkers scheme, run by the BBC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is an attempt to develop a new wave of public intellectuals. But in The Daily Telegraph on 29 June, Rowan Pelling writes that it has shown academia to be so rife with "rivalry and backbiting" that it "makes politicians look like fawning puppies". "I emailed one lecturer to gauge his reaction and he fired back: 'Note the complete absence of mathematicians, chemists, physicists. It trivialises research and, I suppose, is the logical conclusion of allowing cultural studies to be an academic subject'," she writes.

• An attempt to close down a public debate about the uncertain future of the Classics department at Royal Holloway, University of London provoked outrage from critics on 1 July. Paul Layzell, the college principal, warned that discussing the plans on Facebook "will only worsen the situation" and pleaded with staff to hold discussions in private. However, fearing for the future of classical languages, critics refused to be silenced. Greg Woolf, professor of ancient history at the University of St Andrews, accused Professor Layzell of a "disgraceful" attempt to stifle debate.

• There was confusion at the University of Abertay Dundee after the institution informed staff that Bernard King, the suspended principal, had retired - only to be contradicted by Professor King himself. The former convener of Universities Scotland was suspended in February, and on 2 July the university said he had retired, although it added there were "a number of outstanding issues relating to (his) employment that remain to be resolved". However, in a swift riposte, Professor King said he "did not accept" the university's "intimation" that he had retired. "His position is that he has not retired, and he remains in dispute with the university," a spokesman said.

• Two long-time critics of the University and College Union's stance on Israel are suing over its decision to distance itself from a European Union definition of anti-Semitism. Ronnie Fraser, director of the Academic Friends of Israel, is to be represented by Anthony Julius, the lawyer who acted for Diana, Princess of Wales, in her divorce. In a letter to Sally Hunt, the UCU's general secretary, Mr Julius says the way the union treats Jewish members is "scandalous". The UCU declined to comment.

• The arts and humanities are destined to become "the intellectual equivalent of a manicure". So argued Observer columnist Carole Cadwalladr, who suggested on 3 July that subjects such as history of art were already the preserve of upper-class women seeking to "occupy a few brief years before going off to breed with a banker". Soon, she continued, the same will hold for subjects such as history, English and philosophy, which, as tuition fees rise, "will become the preserve of the old Etonians, the daughters of old Etonians, and the odd model with a couple of million in the bank".

• An analysis of the higher education White Paper by the Financial Times tickled Carl Lygo, principal of BPP University College, with its reference to for-profit providers as "insurgents". "In the office on Sunday...Conditions right for insurgency planning," he tweeted on 3 July. Mr Lygo's Twitter followers were equally amused: "It might be the first time anyone has illustrated the word 'insurgent' with a suit and tie," said one. Another tweeted: "Another day, another insurgency. Rock on!"

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