The week in higher education

August 30, 2012

• Carl Lygo, head of for-profit BPP University College, is no stranger to spats with those who have expressed concern at the rising influence of the free market in the higher education sector. He namechecked Simon Ofield-Kerr, vice-chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts, in a piece in The Guardian on 20 August questioning whether academics in senior management positions were prepared for the "ravages" of market competition. This drew a terse response from the vice-chancellor in the newspaper's letters page on 24 August. After chastising Mr Lygo for calling him a "distinguished academic in fine art" (he is an art historian), Dr Ofield-Kerr questioned whether outsourcing core services - praised by Mr Lygo in reference to plans at London Metropolitan University - would help, pointing to "the disastrous and costly unintended consequences of outsourcing in other public services".

• There is a downside to being a controversial academic who deals robustly with critics: the numbers lining up to give you a kicking when you come a cropper. Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard University, has taken a hammering since writing a Newsweek cover feature calling for Barack Obama to be defeated in the US presidential elections. Questions have been raised over Professor Ferguson's accuracy on key points of economic argument, The Guardian said on 21 August. Paul Krugman, professor of economics and international relations at Princeton University, accused him of "unethical commentary" and "misleading readers". In The Atlantic, Harvard alumnus James Fallows called his story "so careless...that I wonder how he will presume to sit in judgment of the next set of student papers he has to grade". Via his blog on 23 August, Brad DeLong, a University of California, Berkeley economist, was pithier still: "Fire his ass...Convene a committee at Harvard to impose...sanctions on this degree of intellectual honesty."

• A tweet on 23 August by Richard Taylor, the University of Leicester's director of corporate affairs, will have left some readers puzzled. "All quiet here ahead of @uniofleicester's exciting announcement tomorrow. But I am a history buff," he wrote, above a link to a photo of a dingy alleyway. So what was the fuss about? Leicester scholars believe they have found the grave of Richard III - under a council car park. The king, defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, was buried in the church of the Franciscan friary in Leicester, but over time its whereabouts were forgotten. However, after studying ancient maps, Leicester archaeologists think they have found the site of the church, The Daily Telegraph reported on 24 August.

• Mothers- and daughters-in-law are renowned for not always seeing eye to eye. But researchers have claimed that the differences may be linked to a facet of human reproduction found in virtually no other animal - the menopause. In a paper in the Ecology Letters journal, a team from the University of Turku in Finland, the universities of Exeter and Sheffield, and Stanford University weighs the impact on families when a woman and her daughter-in-law bring up young children at the same time. The study suggests that the menopause "evolved to prevent older women from competing with their daughters-in-law and allow them to focus on providing for the wider family", The Daily Telegraph reported on 23 August. Andy Russell, Royal Society research fellow in Exeter's biosciences department, said the study may help evaluate "the likely social and psychological consequences of bearing children late".

• All but one of the higher education sector's unions will ballot for strike action over pay after Unison became the latest to announce that it will vote on a walkout. Unison, which has 45,000 higher education members, second only to the University and College Union, will open its ballot on 12 September, it said on 24 August. The sector's five unions - Unison, the UCU, Unite, the Educational Institute of Scotland and the GMB - entered a 7 per cent claim for 2012-13, intended as a "catch-up" following three years of settlements that fell below the rate of inflation. All have rejected a 1 per cent offer by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. Only the GMB has yet to announce its plans.

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