The week in higher education

November 10, 2011

• Wanted: graduates with beer bellies, piercings, tattoos - and high-level hacking skills. While many in the West might lose weight and erase body art in return for a job, the Chinese army is easing its rules about recruits' personal appearance. It was reported on 4 November that the People's Liberation Army had "bowed to the realities of 21st-century China" as part of a strategy to recruit more graduate-level candidates capable of developing its cyber-warfare capabilities. Candidates will now be allowed to be 25 per cent heavier than the military standard and have visible tattoos up to 3cm in length. A new recruitment poster insists: "You may have a glorious time on your own, but nothing compares to messing about with your army brothers."

• The UK Border Agency is something of a bogeyman for the colleges and language schools that provide a vital flow of fee-paying international students to British universities. So the spate of stories about lax practice in the organisation responsible for cracking the whip on colleges is likely to have been met with glee. First it emerged that hundreds of thousands of foreigners had entered the UK without proper checks after Theresa May, the home secretary, had authorised a relaxation of border controls, and then on 6 November allegations surfaced about a "bribes for visas" racket. The timing could scarcely be worse for the government, which last week trumpeted that its tough stance on student visas and college inspections had resulted in 450 colleges losing the right to recruit internationally. Have some UKBA officials taken exhortations that the country should be seen as "open for business" too literally?

• The lobbying for greater liberalisation of student recruitment has intensified. When the government announced plans to allow universities to recruit unlimited numbers of students with A-level grades of AAB or better, many institutions called for a lower threshold. Now David Eastwood, vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, has said that "all the indications are that the government is going to move on from AAB in 2012 to ABB in 2013 and BBB in 2014". In an interview on 6 November, he added: "If that is the intention, then it must be announced very quickly so universities can think about their position; about what their competitors might do in terms of expansion and how they price their programmes." If the chopping and changing of recent months is anything to go by, the sector can but hope.

• As the media's go-to scientist, Brian Cox is often credited with turning around fading interest in physics. But the University of Manchester academic may not have done it alone. At least some of the subject's recent resurgence is down to a US sitcom that has made physics "cool", it was suggested on 6 November. The Observer quoted school pupils saying that The Big Bang Theory had prompted them to modify the traditional game of rock-paper-scissors to "rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock" in a tribute to a scene from the series. But when the newspaper turned to Alex Cheung, editor of Physics.org, for further analysis, she returned to safer ground. "The viewing figures for Brian Cox's series suggest that millions of people in the UK are happy to welcome a physics professor into their sitting room," she observed.

• Thousands of students were due to march through London on 9 November in a "day of action" coordinated by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts. Writing before the protest, Michael Chessum, a member of the National Union of Students' national executive, said its aim was "to block the cuts and privatisation agenda before it becomes a reality". He also denounced the decision by the Metropolitan Police to authorise the use of baton rounds if the protest got out of control. This had "reinforced the disenfranchisement of those planning to march: not only is our future being dismantled, but we will [also] be violently repressed when we attempt to defend it", Mr Chessum said. The march had not taken place at the time of Times Higher Education going to press.

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