The week in higher education

June 21, 2012

• From an Elsevier boycotter to one of the sector's most prominent female vice-chancellors, the Queen's Birthday Honours List, announced on 16 June, recognised a diverse array of higher education figures. Timothy Gowers, Royal Society research professor in the department of pure mathematics and mathematical statistics at the University of Cambridge, was knighted for services to maths. Sir Timothy has also helped to inspire the ongoing boycott of Elsevier journals that has injected such vigour into the open-access movement. Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for services to higher education and technology. Her achievements in industry and academia are undoubted, but Aston's press release on the accolade did leave out her membership of the Browne Review of 2010. Then again, it is probably now troublesome to be linked with the 60-page report that paved the way to higher fees, using an evidence base that could be knocked down by a gust of wind.

• In February, news stories, opinion pieces and leader columns in the national press warned us of the dangers ahead: class warfare in university admissions waged by a social engineer called Les who hailed from what really ought to be known as the Luton College of Higher Education. Things had quietened down since then, but on 16 June, The Daily Telegraph returned to the theme of class and university admissions. An interview with Sir Michael Wilshaw appeared under this headline: "Lower university entry grades patronise the poor, says Ofsted chief". Sir Michael said that leading universities "are prepared to look very closely" at candidates' circumstances, "but in general, I would say, certainly when I think of the youngsters who got into Oxbridge from Mossbourne (the state school in East London where he was headteacher), they didn't want special privileges. They didn't want to be patronised in any way."

• Around 50 universities have been "terrorised by what detectives believe is a linked series of bomb threats designed to cause chaos on campuses", The Observer reported on 17 June. Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism branch, SO15, has launched a national investigation into the threats to some of the UK's most high-profile institutions, some made over the phone but most via email. The University of Cambridge "has received daily warnings over the last three weeks of incendiary devices planted on its estate, forcing the evacuation of buildings", while a hoax email to halls of residence at the University of Bristol says: "Two small bombs are hidden in Wills and Durdham Halls. They will explode later today. Take this warning very, very seriously."

• Earlier this year, Michael Gove, the education secretary, announced a shake-up of A levels in which Russell Group universities would "drive the system" by designing curricula. But like a 17-year-old gifted a dodgy car in a horrible colour by an embarrassing dad, universities want to leave this parked. The Times reported on 18 June that A levels are likely to be divided into two courses, each lasting a year with a set of exams at the end, as the number of modules and multiple resits is cut, after a consultation begun by Ofqual this week. However, in response to Mr Gove's curricula call, the newspaper said that institutions "are unsure over how or whether they would do this". The Royal Society of Chemistry, the Society of Biology and the Institute of Physics warned that such a model would create "a market of qualifications developed by a range of different institutions, all accredited by the regulator but possibly of variable worth".

• "Language is a system of sins," one student wrote in a semiotics exam last year, and Times Higher Education is looking for more sinfulness in its annual call for exam howlers. Academics have just a few days left to submit the best examples of students whose work has strayed from the righteous path. The academic submitting the winning entry will receive a magnum of champagne. More importantly, they could also see their howler remembered fondly alongside gems such as "anus crimes" ("heinous crimes") or the new philosophical principle of "Confusionism". Please send entries by 30 June to john.elmes@tsleducation.com.

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