The week in higher education

January 12, 2012

• Top marks to zoology researchers at the University of Oxford for their canny PR. Finding a new species of crab on the ocean floor near Antarctica would not normally win newspaper column inches nor links on the BBC News website and CBS online. But the research team astutely likened the hairy-chested yeti crab to the Baywatch star David Hasselhoff - famed for his hirsute torso - dubbing it "The Hoff". Cue extensive coverage on 4 January, including in The Guardian and the Daily Mail, complete with photos of The Hoff in action - the muscle-bound actor that is, not the bug-eyed crustacean.

• Universities raised £50 million by fining students for overdue library books, The Daily Telegraph reported on 7 January. The top earner was the University of Leeds, which collected £1.8 million in the past six years, while Edinburgh Napier University's £1-a-day penalties contrasted with some that charged just 10p. A clue to the whereabouts of the sector's 300,000 missing books might also be found in the newspaper's online comments section. One reader recounts those "hazy days when I'd go into the library with my gear bag - and nick every book I could", while another recalls deliberately misfiling titles to stop others "hiding" books.

• Illness forced Stephen Hawking to miss his 70th birthday party, attended by luminaries from academia, business and showbusiness. But the physicist was able to deliver a pre-recorded birthday lecture to a packed auditorium in Cambridge on 8 January. Professor Hawking, who was given just two years to live after he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 1963, told guests including the model Lily Cole and Sir Richard Branson that he had been mediocre at school and had not learned to read until he was eight. He added: "When I was 12, one of my friends bet another friend a bag of sweets that I would never come to anything. I don't know if this bet was ever settled and, if so, which way it was decided."

• Complaints of sub-standard teaching and overcrowding have led the University of Manchester to cut student numbers by more than 1,000, The Sunday Times claimed. The Russell Group university, which has more than 28,000 undergraduates, will lower its intake from 8,736 in 2010 to 7,544 by 2014 - a 14 per cent fall, the newspaper reported on 8 January. More than 100 academics will also be hired to improve staff-to-student ratios. It follows a meeting last month between students and the vice-chancellor, Dame Nancy Rothwell, who admitted that "a small proportion of staff clearly do not think students are important", according to student newspaper The Mancunion.

• It's been a tough start to 2012 for the Labour leader Ed Miliband. First his former adviser, Lord Glasman - a senior lecturer in political theory at London Metropolitan University - told the New Statesman that Mr Miliband had "no strategy and little energy". Then the Labour leader endured further flak for paying tribute on Twitter to the late "Blackbusters" host Bob Holness - a typo that made The Sun's front page on 7 January thanks to Mr Miliband's earlier dressing-down of Diane Abbott MP for an allegedly racist tweet. But worse was to follow. On 9 January, Mr Miliband was likened to an academic by the former home secretary Alan Johnson. In a supportive opinion piece in the Daily Mirror titled "We need a bit less Professor Mili and a bit more Iron Ed", Mr Johnson said debate within Labour was often "conducted as if it were a university seminar". In the world of populist politics, it seems there is no greater slur.

• A woman died after a stampede broke out in a crowd of students queuing for places at the University of Johannesburg. The crush occurred on 10 January after applicants had waited through the night to enrol. Queues stretching back for 1km had formed after it was reported that Johannesburg would accept last-minute applications. The victim is believed to be the mother of a prospective student, according to the BBC News website. More than 180,000 students are expected to be turned away from South Africa's nine top universities this year, with 74,000 missing out at Johannesburg alone.

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