The week in higher education

May 24, 2012

• A Scottish peer described by The Scotsman as the "high priest of unrepentant Thatcherism" and "stoically anti-devolution" has introduced to the House of Lords a bill to prevent UK students from being charged different tuition fees depending on where in the country they study. Lord Forsyth of Drumlean brought the higher education (fees) bill to the upper chamber for its first reading on 17 May. That Scottish undergraduates go to university for free while their English counterparts are charged has long been a gripe south of the border, but the introduction this autumn of annual tuition fees of up to £9,000 in England is likely to take the perceived inequity to a whole new level.

• While Harry Potter's extraordinary commercial success and his cultural impact are undoubted, the young wizard is still to cast his magic over academia. As scholars debated J.K. Rowling's children's novels at a conference at the University of St Andrews, very few had a kind word to say about the literary worth of the Hogwarts series, The Daily Telegraph reported on 18 May. "It's written awkwardly and is clumsy in places," said author and literary critic Philip Womack. "And it lacks subtlety. Even Professor Snape, who is meant to be complex, is so obvious." Greg Currie, professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, added: "It's difficult to sustain creativity over seven novels. As a result, the ideas get stale quickly." It seems that Ms Rowling will have to console herself with her estimated £620 million fortune.

• Fears that protesters would try to vandalise a controversial trial of genetically modified wheat appeared to have come true when a man was arrested and charged with criminal damage for breaking into Rothamsted Research on 20 May. However, according to a spokesman for Rothamsted, the intruder caused significant damage to property but failed to disrupt the experiment. The laboratory has been the target of anti-GM campaign group Take the Flour Back, which plans to hold a "mass decontamination" of the test site on May. Researchers have pleaded with campaigners not to ruin their work. They offered to arrange a public debate with the protesters ahead of the event, but their offer was turned down. The GM trial involves wheat engineered to release a pheromone that repels aphids, which scientists hope may reduce the need for pesticides.

• Social mobility again took centre stage this week as political leaders from the Labour Party and the coalition government took turns to declare their credentials at a Sutton Trust conference in London. First up was Ed Miliband, who condemned "snobs" who believe that university is the "only pathway to success", the Daily Mail reported on 21 May. The University of Oxford graduate said that ministers should show "as much respect for young people whose skills secure them an apprenticeship as those who win places at university". He was followed the next day by Nick Clegg, who promised to publish more data on achievement gaps between state and private school pupils as part of an annual update on progress in social mobility. "The data show we've got a long way to go, but that's why [they are] there - to hold a flame to our feet until the gaps close," he told the conference, where he also backed the use of contextual data in university admissions.

• Most academics would probably be pleased to hear that undergraduates were using the library, but it seems that does not hold true for Oxford's world-famous Bodleian. According to The Times on 22 May, researchers are aghast that more undergraduates, bringing with them "chocolate brownies, hand cream, even a burger and chips", may use the library - normally the preserve of academics - because some collections are being moved from the Radcliffe Camera. The changes are a consequence of room being made at the university's Old Indian Institute building for the Oxford Martin School, the research institute endowed by IT entrepreneur James Martin. The university said that the opening of its libraries to "academics and undergraduates alike reflects the modern spirit of openness" at the institution.

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