The week in higher education

September 15, 2011

• When he learned last year that vice-chancellors were earning an average annual salary of £220,000, Aaron Porter seethed with righteous indignation, describing the sum as "obscene" and accusing university heads of being "divorced from reality". But the anger voiced so eloquently in 2010 seems to have fizzled out along with his presidency of the National Union of Students, which he left behind this summer. It was reported on 8 September that Mr Porter is now charging £8,500 for two weeks' work as a higher education consultant. If extrapolated across a whole year, this adds up to £221,000 - or £1,000 a year more than the "obscene" sums enjoyed by those greedy vice-chancellors.

• "Fear of 'helmet hair' stops us cycling to work", ran the headline on a Daily Telegraph story on 8 September about a piece of research - possibly leaving the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council less than thrilled to be identified as its funder. Telegraph readers might have tutted over academic frivolity, but the study at Lancaster University was a serious one, surveying 1,400 people on why £150 million of government spending to promote cycling might not have the desired effect. The researchers' undoubtedly sterling work was overlooked in favour of a response from one of those surveyed, identified as Lara from Leeds: "The helmet is a problem for me, because I just think it would make my hair a little squashed."

• Thinking of going to university? Don't waste your time and money. That was the message from journalist A.A. Gill, writing in The Sunday Times Magazine on 11 September. Mr Gill, a non-graduate, opined that "a university degree will still leave the deserving provincial working and middle class as far outside the patronage loop as they ever were, just now it costs them a lot more". And he tells journalism students that "no experience is a waste...except perhaps this one: sitting in a classroom watching some old bloke talk". The piece, complete with inspiring case studies of photogenic youngsters who shunned university and found success, must have brought tears to the eyes of vice-chancellors nervously awaiting the uncertainties ahead.

• A US university is facing legal action from the families of deceased cancer patients in a row over clinical trials based on allegedly flawed data. The case centres on Anil Potti, who worked at Duke University researching the use of genetic information to determine optimal cancer therapy. The research was used to set up clinical trials. However, several papers by Dr Potti have since been retracted and the trials suspended. An investigation into the data is ongoing. The lawsuit accuses the defendants of fraudulent and negligent behaviour for enrolling cancer patients on the trials, Nature reported on 12 September.

• The Northern Irish government announced on 12 September that the province's universities and colleges will be allowed to charge English, Scottish and Welsh students up to £9,000 a year. Northern Irish students will have their fees set at £3,465, as will students from all other European Union countries.

• The University of Ulster said it would set fees for rest-of-UK students between £6,000 and £8,000, while Queen's University Belfast had yet to reach a decision. Northern Irish students who wish to study in the rest of the UK, and who may face fees of up to £9,000, can apply for loans to cover the full amount.

• The total value of UK higher education knowledge exchange has risen by 4 per cent to just under £3.1 billion, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The increase shows that universities "are putting their best efforts into stimulating economic growth in this country, in challenging global conditions", Hefce said on 15 September. Whether that is enough to convince Vince Cable, the business secretary, to devote more attention to the universities section of his brief remains to be seen. Mr Cable's speech at the Universities UK conference last week was a rare foray into higher education, despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that he used to be a university lecturer.

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