The week in higher education

October 27, 2011

• The bragging rights associated with getting a paper published in a leading journal such as Science or Nature are undeniable. But for the purposes of the research excellence framework, at least, a journal by any other name would smell as sweet, David Willetts has claimed. Giving the Gareth Roberts Science Policy Lecture last week, the universities and science minister said that the REF would judge outputs on the basis of "quality, quality, quality, not location, location, location". "Individual universities may have a different perspective on the journals you should have published in ... but the REF process makes no such judgements," he said on 19 October. Requiring REF panels to embrace such novel ideas as research "impact" is one thing, but is asking them to ditch a lifetime of journal snobbery a step too far?

• A fifth of higher education institutions in England are seeking to lower their tuition fees to less than £7,500 despite the application process having begun - provoking criticism over the uncertainty faced by students. The Office for Fair Access said on 21 October that universities are being given a further chance to switch student support from bursaries to fee waivers to allow them to bid for the 20,000 places reserved for cheaper providers. So far, 28 institutions have indicated that they may take up the regulator's offer. Pam Tatlow, chief executive of Million+, which represents post-1992 universities, said the changes were necessary because the White Paper had "changed the rules of the game". However, she added, "it is unfortunate for both students and universities that the late intervention by ministers has made this necessary".

• News that Which? magazine is planning a guide to UK universities prompted wails about the consumerisation of higher education. The magazine will rate "locations, teaching standards and the quality of a university's research" and indicate which graduates "will be better placed to get a job", it was reported on 23 October. So what's the problem? As it says on the Which? website - which this week offered tips on the best portable heaters - the publication gives "expert, unbiased information to help you make the right choice, whatever you're buying". With those inspiring words in mind, students may start kicking the metaphorical tyres on their lecturers and tutting over the miles on the clock.

• What do quantum mechanics and UK higher education reforms have in common? More than one might expect, to judge by an analysis of the former by physicist Brian Cox. Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on 24 October, Professor Cox said the process of developing scientific knowledge was one of "gradual improvement", with early theories often later abandoned. Science "makes no claim to be right", he said, arguing that quantum mechanics requires you to "jettison your preconceptions of the world". Given the concerns about chopping and changing to cope with the numerous unintended consequences of the higher education reforms, one might have been forgiven for thinking he was describing government policy.

• The provost of University College London is to "run" the NHS - but it will take only two days a week. Malcolm Grant, who has been chosen by the government to chair the new NHS Commissioning Board, confirmed "an extraordinary transformation of responsibility" away from ministers in unpublished evidence to the Health Select Committee, The Guardian reported on 24 October. The NHS shake-up "will result in an unelected academic and the nation's 38,000 family doctors, rather than ministers, being accountable for the day-to-day running of the health service", the newspaper said. The super-quango job "was offered at two days a week for up to £63,000", the Department of Health said. A UCL spokesman told Times Higher Education that the NHS salary "goes straight into UCL" and Professor Grant "doesn't receive any sort of financial gain". He will continue in his UCL role, for which he received £317,779 in pay and benefits in 2009-10.

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