The week in higher education

August 4, 2011

• Some academics seek immortality through their ideas; Robert Ettinger sought immortality by having his body placed in a deep freezer after his death. Mr Ettinger, who has died at the age of 92, taught physics at Wayne State University in Michigan and was regarded as the father of cryonics - the practice of freezing a person's body after death in the hope of being restored to life when a cure has been found for whatever killed them. It was reported on July that Mr Ettinger had put his money where his mouth was, and has now been frozen alongside 105 similarly optimistic people (and 78 pets) at the Cryonics Institute he founded.

• The A* grade at A level was first awarded last year - but it is already being questioned. Between 12,000 and 13,000 Oxbridge applicants with at least one A* pass will fail to gain a place at one of the two ancient universities this year, The Independent reported on 30 July. The newspaper said that the figures raised questions about whether the grade "is doing its job in helping elite universities select the brightest candidates for popular courses". It added that pressure is increasing on ministers to allow pupils to apply for university places after they have received their A-level grades, rather than relying on predictions.

• Like sharks circling their prey, universities are manoeuvring for position in the new market. But there are signs that some might be ready to take bites out of each other - or chew existing groupings into bits. Rumours emerged this week that 1994 Group members Durham University and the University of Exeter, seen as part of the new AAB elite, will "seek invitations" to join the rival Russell Group. Expansion of the mission group will be a "sensitive issue for weaker members such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Cardiff and Queen's University Belfast", The Times said on 1 August. But some vice-chancellors are nervous that "expansion may prompt a handful of elite institutions to form a breakaway group focused around the likes of Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial", it added.

• A medical school has defended its decision to accept funding from an online sex shop for a chair in sexual health education. The $50,000 (£30,700) pledge from, which sells pornography and sex toys, will go towards the post at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The chair will be named after Joycelyn Elders, whose term as US Surgeon General in the 1990s ended after she told a United Nations conference that masturbation "perhaps should be taught" in order to reduce HIV infections, it was reported on 1 August. Eli Coleman, director of the human sexuality programme at the institution, said: "If this was a company that was into child pornography or something like that...I don't think we could morally accept. But this is a company that's responsible and law-abiding."

• Narcissism and attention-seeking are traits that are surely absent from most students. But lecturers who do find their undergraduates guilty of either now know what to blame: social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Baroness Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford, believes the growth of internet "friendships" could be rewiring the brain, it was reported on 1 August. "What concerns me is the banality of so much that goes out on Twitter," she said. "It reminds me of a small child (saying): 'Look at me, Mummy, I'm doing this', 'Look at me, Mummy, I'm doing that'."

• The principal of the University of the West of Scotland has been named the new convener of Universities Scotland. Seamus McDaid replaces Bernard King, who retired as principal of the University of Abertay Dundee last week after a long-running dispute with the institution's court. Professor McDaid takes up the post at a worrying time for Scottish universities, which are facing a significant funding gap compared with English institutions. However, he said on 2 August: "We are very fortunate in Scotland that the public, Parliament and government place such value on higher education."

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