The week in higher education

August 9, 2012

• The Russell Group has officially welcomed its four new arrivals from the 1994 Group: Durham, Exeter and York universities and Queen Mary, University of London. To mark their arrival, the mission group issued a press release on 1 August listing the achievements of its members. Last on the list was the fact that Russell Group universities admit "three-quarters of their students from state schools and one-fifth from lower socio-economic groups". Which is another way of saying that one-quarter of students at its universities attended a private school - well above the estimated 7 per cent of pupils at private schools nationally - and four-fifths come from higher socio-economic groups. If the Russell Group is hoping to defuse the "nuclear option" that new director of fair access Les Ebdon has threatened to wield, it might have to do better than that.

• The quality mark scheme launched by the Quality Assurance Agency got off to a shaky start on 1 August. The QAA announced that its subscribing universities and colleges will be able to display the organisation's logo if they achieve positive outcomes in their institutional reviews or if they have won degree-awarding powers. But one name mysteriously left off the list of institutions was BPP University College, perhaps the best known of the six private providers eligible. Times Higher Education enquired about the omission, prompting the QAA to hastily offer "sincere apologies" to BPP and to correct the mistake. The QAA's new educational oversight role must cover both senses of the word "oversight".

University College London has become the latest institution to be embroiled in controversy over an advertisement for an unpaid research role. University College London's Anna Freud Centre had been recruiting for an unpaid research assistant, on a full-time or part-time basis for six months, through an advert originally posted on the centre's website last month. But after the University and College Union raised concerns and a petition opposing the role was posted on Facebook, the Anna Freud Centre withdrew the advert on 2 August. The controversy comes after the University of Birmingham also withdrew an advert for an unpaid "honorary research assistant" position last month after fierce criticism on social media sites.

• Hard news can be difficult to come by in the summer months. So it was a blessing when Harper Adams University College announced on 2 August that its researchers are "hoping to find out what the public really thinks of the popular spread Marmite". The institution said in a press release that "questionnaires have been distributed and taste tests have taken place to calculate what proportion of the population likes or dislikes the product, whether it is seen as an 'iconic' brand and, if they do like it, whether they can tell the difference when compared to rival products". The study is being replicated in other countries that have "native yeast extract spreads", including Australia - home of Marmite's main rival Vegemite - New Zealand and South Africa.

• Iranian state television has broadcast "purported confessions" by more than a dozen suspects in connection with the killings of five nuclear scientists working in the country's universities. The state broadcaster said the 14 suspects were taught how to place magnetic bombs on cars - the method used in some of the killings - at a training camp outside Tel Aviv in Israel, The Guardian reported on 6 August. Iran blames Israel and its secret service, Mossad, for the killings, saying they are part of a concerted campaign to disrupt its nuclear programme.

• The transfer market for higher education wonks hotted up on 6 August. Mark Leach, departing senior policy adviser at the University Alliance, announced on Twitter that he will be splitting his time between two new roles: senior policy officer at GuildHE and senior policy adviser to Shabana Mahmood, Labour's shadow higher education minister. He is not the only GuildHE staff member with Labour links: chief executive Andy Westwood was a special adviser to John Denham in his time as Labour universities minister. David Willetts, the Conservative universities and science minister, will no doubt dismiss such associations from his mind when he is next lobbied by GuildHE.

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