The week in higher education

November 8, 2012

• Among the smaller but still significant casualties of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the East Coast of the US last month, were thousands of laboratory rodents drowned in the basement rooms of a New York University medical research centre. Gordon J. Fishell, associate director of the NYU Neuroscience Institute, told The New York Times in an article published on 31 October that around 2,500 rats and mice earmarked for use in heart disease, cancer, autism and schizophrenia research had been lost, "an absolute tragedy". The colonies were "the culmination of 10 years of work, and it will take time to replace them", he said. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island have pledged to donate animals to the NYU facility. "That's the one positive thing to come out of this," Dr Fishell said. "Individuals in the research community, who in most businesses would be considered my competitors, have been eager to help."

• Sir Christopher Snowden will be the next president of Universities UK, it was announced on 2 November. After being unopposed in the nominations process, the University of Surrey vice-chancellor will start his two-year term of office in August 2013, replacing Eric Thomas, the University of Bristol's vice-chancellor. A knighthood is traditionally bestowed on the chaps who lead UUK - and it is always chaps - as a pat on the head at the end of their terms. However, with Sir Christopher already knighted, the government faces the alarming prospect of a UUK president negotiating policy without needing to worry about his knighthood. Arise, Lord Snowden of Guildford?

• It is obvious who scotched the education secretary's plan to have universities redesign A-level curricula: a powerful cabal of university administrators. "Universities are hindering Michael Gove's attempt to toughen up A levels by refusing to design the new exams," The Sunday Times reported on 4 November, sounding thoroughly cheesed off. It quoted "government sources" who believe there is a tension between academics concerned that A levels are not preparing students for degree courses and "administrators who do not want their institutions embroiled in political rows...or to let staff take time off to set exams". Those pesky administrators must have written Universities UK's A-level consultation response, which says that "members broadly agree that A levels are fit for purpose", although "technical reforms" to assessment could improve them.

• The president of the National Union of Students sounds apprehensive about the organisation's forthcoming national demonstration in London - particularly its appeal to "arseholes". Liam Burns said in an interview with The Mancunion student newspaper on 4 November: "One of the things I can't do is stop any arsehole from coming along on the day, and that's true of any action we have in London." Mr Burns has previously argued against holding the demonstration, which will be held on 21 November, after it was backed by the union's conference. "Violence is not going to engender public sympathy," he said, making clear his determination to avoid the scenes seen in 2010's student protests, which led to the downfall of his predecessor, Aaron Porter. The "hard left" were "despicable in their treatment of Aaron", he said, adding that the former president "suffered...bullying".

• Student demand for 2012-13 "is lower than forecast by the sector, and...some institutions are recruiting fewer students than expected", England's funding council said in a report on 5 November, bringing to mind Basil Fawlty's words on the "bleedin' obvious". The Higher Education Funding Council for England's report on the sector's finances to 2014-15 says that this downward trend "increases the risk that financial performance for these institutions will be poorer than anticipated". Its December report to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills might be more interesting, as it will offer "an initial assessment of the impact of the new funding arrangements". However, Hefce's board papers state that it will not be made available to the public.

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