The week in higher education

February 23, 2012

• Two teenagers ruffled feathers at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills by bringing a legal challenge against this year's tuition-fee hike. Lawyers for Callum Hurley, from Peterborough, and Katy Moore, from Brixton, South London, argued that the tripling of fees to £9,000 a year breached the human right to a free education, the Daily Mail reported on 18 February. The 18-year-olds lost their challenge, but Lord Justice Elias found that Vince Cable, the business secretary, had flouted equality rules by failing to consider the full impact of fee increases on female, ethnic-minority and disabled students. Mr Cable "did not give the rigorous attention required to the package of measures overall" and the breaches could not be termed merely "technical", the judge said.

• David Willetts is enduring a torrid time at the hands of Tory critics over his support for Les Ebdon's appointment as director of the Office for Fair Access. So where better for the universities and science minister to begin the fightback than, er, the Falkland Islands, followed by Antarctica? Mr Willetts was due to stop over in the South Atlantic islands this week for a "morale-boosting dinner with Nigel Haywood", governor of the Falkland Islands, The Times reported on 18 February: whose morale was most in need of boosting was not made clear. Mr Willetts then flew to Antarctica with Mike Pinnock, head of science resource planning at the British Antarctic Survey, to spend a couple of days witnessing the work of about 80 British scientists. The trip to Antarctica provoked much amusement in the House of Commons. One waggish Labour MP wondered if Mr Willetts had said before leaving: "I am just going outside and may be some time."

• "Will this man stop your child going to a top university?" screamed a headline in The Sunday Times on 19 February, accompanied by a mugshot of Les Ebdon, the next director of the Office for Fair Access. Those who failed to grasp the sinister intentions of the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire were given a second pointer: Professor Ebdon's profile loomed large over an idyllic image of punters gliding past King's College Chapel in Cambridge. He was also holding a sign that read: "Please Keep Out - unless from a disadvantaged group, as approved by the Dept [of] Social Engineering", to spell out the message for any reader yet to grasp the point. A tad heavy-handed perhaps? But with News International supremo Rupert Murdoch in town, were The Sunday Times sub-editors making an early pitch for a job on the new Sun on Sunday?

• Political economist Francis Fukuyama has taken academic curiosity to new heights by building his own surveillance drone. The author of The End of History and The Last Man can be seen flying a remote-controlled helicopter around Stanford University, where he is a senior fellow, The Sunday Times reported on 19 February. He has also posted online a 58-second video clip showing images from a test flight above the California campus. A loophole in drone regulations allows amateurs to fly objects below 400ft and away from built-up areas. Of his hobby, Professor Fukuyama said: "You have constantly to repair your crashed helicopters, which costs lots of money and takes lots of time."

• Public-spirited academics have been tricked into writing answers for what may be an essay mill, The Guardian warned on 20 February. The apparent scam centres on emails sent by someone falsely claiming to be journalist Matt Wolf, an occasional Guardian freelance writer. Seeking to question academics on their expertise in Irish poetry and drama, the bogus journalist then sends detailed questions on a selection of topics, from Ernest Hemingway to Greek myth. Scholars have found themselves locked in email correspondence with "Mr Wolf" for weeks, with one writing six essays before the hoax was exposed. The mystery emailer is believed to be based in California, where answers are turned into crib sheets for students to pass off as their own work.

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