The week in higher education

October 25, 2012

• David Willetts stressed the importance of evidence-based policy as he participated in the official launch of a university-run website linking academics and policymakers. On 16 October the universities and science minister contributed a posting to the University of Essex's Society Central site, in which he argued that evidence was the "antidote to the sloppy thinking that is encouraged by sofa government".Which politicians will the website expose for "sloppy thinking"? Immediately following the minister's piece was an article by Lindsay Judge, a researcher for the Child Poverty Action Group, lambasting Mr Willetts' Tory colleague George Osborne for ignoring evidence in his proposal to cap benefits for unemployed people with big families. Her group's evidence showed that the chancellor's claim that unemployed families profit from having children "is far from the truth", she said. Mr Willetts wasn't firing the bullets but he inadvertently helped to load the gun.

Birkbeck, University of London, cancelled a prestigious lecture to be given by Mr Willetts because of "growing evidence of plans to seriously disrupt the event". The minister was due to deliver the university's J.D. Bernal Lecture on 18 October, an annual event held in memory of the physicist John Desmond Bernal. But students protesting against the policies of the coalition government reportedly sought to disrupt the occasion. The protesters also set about booking up tickets to the event (which were free) in order to leave him addressing an empty lecture hall - a situation that lecturers often face on Monday mornings but not one with which Mr Willetts is likely to be too familiar.

• Morrisons has become the latest well-known consumer brand to enter higher education after the supermarket chain announced the launch of a part-time foundation degree in partnership with the University of Hull's business school. The Huffington Post reported on 22 October that the store would follow in the footsteps of businesses such as Starbucks and the fast-food restaurant chain KFC. Around 100 students are already enrolled at "Morrisons Academy", according to the online newspaper. A Morrisons spokesman said that the programme would enable the company to develop the best managers for its stores. A cut-price provider pursuing a purely vocational strategy - isn't London Metropolitan University trying that already?

• Higher education has experienced financial woes in recent years, but happily nothing like the turmoil of the business world. Another firm sailed into stormy waters on 22 October when it was announced that Manganese Bronze, the maker of London's black cabs, has called in administrators PricewaterhouseCoopers after failing to secure new funding. Tim Melville-Ross, the Manganese Bronze non-executive chairman, is also chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. If there are any more funding cuts in higher education, he may have some tips on insolvency law.

• Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison for multiple manslaughter following a deadly 2009 earthquake in L'Aquila, the BBC reported on 22 October. Prosecutors said that the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence countered that there was no way to predict major quakes. Richard Walters, of the University of Oxford's department of earth sciences, said: "The issue here is about miscommunication of science, and we should not be putting responsible scientists who gave measured, scientifically accurate information in prison."

• A "nudist professor" accused Surrey police of "institutional prejudice" against naturists after he was arrested during a search for a naked sex-offending cyclist, The Daily Telegraph reported on 23 October. David Dunstan, described as a University of London professor of experimental physics, was arrested in June 2009 despite telling police he was out of the country when the offence took place. A search by officers found that he was carrying flyers for a naked cycle ride in London, and a nightclub named Starkers. Professor Dunstan, who was not the man police were looking for, had his challenge to the Independent Police Complaints Commission over the arrest dismissed at the High Court.

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