The week in higher education

May 17, 2012

  • The University of Aberdeen ducked any further accusations of promoting "quackery" by deciding against establishing a chair in a form of alternative medicine that advocates mistletoe as a cure for cancer. The chair in "integrative health care and management" would have been funded primarily by supporters of Austrian spiritualist Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy movement. The proposal was condemned by science advocates after Times Higher Education reported on it last month. The university said in a statement on 11 May that it had abandoned the idea because concerns about its long-term financial viability meant that Aberdeen "could not satisfy its requirement for the highest standards of scientific rigour". David Colquhoun, former A.J. Clark chair of pharmacology at University College London and a prominent critic of alternative medicine, welcomed the move but described the stated rationale as a "PR disaster".
  • "Fertility firm offers Cambridge girls £750 for eggs", shouted the Daily Mail's front page on 12 May. It referred to a story about thousands of female University of Cambridge students receiving an "emotional plea to help a couple unable to have children" via flyers "stuck in their university pigeonholes" complete with an offer of cash "compensation". The founder of Altrui, the fertility company that produced the leaflets, said that the couple were Cambridge graduates who "wanted a donor they felt some connection with". The Mail said that the "targeting of elite students ... raises concerns about attempts to create 'superbabies'". But the prospect of a master race of Cambridge graduates rising to dominate society is far fetched: as everyone knows, Oxford is much more influential.
  • Something close to a political consensus in Scotland has held that undergraduate study should be free - at least for Scots. But Scottish Labour's position appears to have shifted after its leader, Johann Lamont, called for an "honest debate" about education in Scotland in a speech to the Scottish Fabian Society on 12 May. She said that the Scottish National Party's "boast" of "free education" was "populist" and forced universities to recruit non-Scottish students to bring in money. A spokesman later said that the party was considering a range of options and still ruled out upfront tuition fees - but not "back-end" charges such as a graduate tax. Joe FitzPatrick, the SNP's MSP for Dundee City West, called the speech Ms Lamont's "Nick Clegg moment".
  • If Les Ebdon has a "nuclear option" as the new director of fair access, then some research-intensive universities are preparing for a Cuban missile crisis by wheeling their own weapons into position. That might be one interpretation of the comments made by Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of the University of Reading, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph published on 13 May. Sir David, who was permanent secretary at the Department for Education until the start of this year, said that letting in working-class students with A-level grades lower than their wealthier counterparts was "patronising" and could be seen as a "back-door route in". Sir David's view will be welcomed by his former boss, Michael Gove, who is widely seen as the puppetmaster behind the anti-Ebdon press coverage earlier this year.
  • Although the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has been taking flak for a while over its shaping capability programme, even its embattled chief executive David Delpy cannot have foreseen academics' anger resulting in a funeral procession at Westminster. But that is exactly what happened on 15 May when campaigners for the newly formed group Science for the Future used a coffin and horse-drawn hearse to draw attention to its concerns. The group accused the EPSRC of no longer allocating funds on a fair and transparent basis and of neglecting blue-skies research in order to meet policy objectives. It wants to see the shaping capability project - where the EPSRC has outlined which fields of research it wants to prioritise in the future - reversed and an international review of the council's work carried out.

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