The week in higher education

May 3, 2012

• Academics at a Jesuit university in the US who challenged a leading Catholic Republican politician over his proposed budget cuts have earned themselves a pious response. Staff at Georgetown University criticised Paul Ryan's "continuing misuse of Catholic teaching to defend a budget plan that decimates food programs for struggling families ... and gives more tax breaks to the wealthiest few". Barack Obama has previously branded the proposed cuts "social Darwinism". Mr Ryan responded, in a speech at Georgetown on 26 April, that Pope Benedict has himself pointed out how "governments, communities and individuals running up high debt levels are 'living at the expense of future generations, and living in untruth'". The Georgetown academics can consider themselves schooled on the infallibility of austerity.

• Changes to A levels are on their way after Michael Gove, the education secretary, said that he wanted Russell Group universities to be given control over exam content. In an interview with The Sunday Telegraph on 28 April, Glenys Stacey, the chief executive of Ofqual, said that after more than a decade of "persistent grade inflation", the value of A levels and GCSEs had been undermined. In a statement the next day, Ofqual said that it would consult in the summer on "arrangements for the development of the new A levels, including their structure", citing problems with a culture of multiple resits. However, the exam regulator has indicated that it might not view A levels purely as university entrance exams, saying it would consult "universities and others".

Imperial College London has announced that it will create new roles of "provost" and "president and rector" in a US-style management structure. In a sign of changing priorities in the sector, Imperial said in a statement on 29 April that the president and rector "will have oversight of all functions at Imperial, but will also place greater emphasis on Imperial's external affairs in the UK and overseas, focusing on building relationships with alumni, supporters, governments and industry". The provost will take charge of "the college's core academic mission". Sir Keith O'Nions, formerly rector, has assumed the role of president and rector, while the search for a provost has begun, with interviews scheduled for October. "Salary and benefits will be fully commensurate with the seniority and nature of the appointment," Imperial has said, and whoever fills the role will no doubt receive a rousing welcome from students paying tuition fees of £9,000.

• Historian Lucy Worsley has become the latest "media don" to receive a bashing in the press. After A.A. Gill's "too ugly for TV" remarks about the classicist Mary Beard, The Times' Kevin Maher tackled the telegenic presenter of the BBC's If Walls Could Talk: The History of the Home for her "doctor-itis" (the need by academics to refer to their PhD at all times). Mr Maher noted on 30 April how the former visiting professor at Kingston University introduced herself as "Dr Lucy Worsley" by "biting proudly down on the 'doctor' as if somehow blending, in the minds of her viewers, the glamour of the Hippocratic Oath with 30,000 words of arcane architectural esoterica". Wondering if he should in future refer to himself as "Kevin Maher, BA, MA", the columnist noted how most professionals got by without "puffy and self-important" references to their qualifications.

• Plant scientists must wish they could engineer a strain of wheat that was resistant to anti-GM saboteurs. In the absence of that, researchers at Rothamsted Research appealed to activists' sense of reason. Faced with news that environmentalists attending a "Take the Flour Back" rally at the end of the month are planning to destroy a trial crop of aphid-resistant wheat that they believe contains a "cow gene", the scientists penned an open letter and posted a video on YouTube on 2 May urging a rethink "before years of work to which we have devoted our lives are destroyed forever". They point out that a successful trial could trigger substantial reductions in the amount of insecticide needed for wheat production. "You have described genetically modified crops as 'not properly tested'. Yet when tests are carried out you are planning to destroy them before any useful information can be obtained," they add.

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