Today's news

November 21, 2002

SDP Oxbridge set makes running on top-up fees
Downing Street is seeking to defuse the growing row over university top-up fees amid fears that allies of Gordon Brown are using it to drive a wedge between Tony Blair and the Labour Party. Opponents of proposals to allow elite universities to charge extra tuition fees have privately accused the prime minister of falling under the spell of an "SDP Oxbridge set". Mr Blair is said to have been lobbied by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the cChancellor of Oxford University and former Social Democratic Party leader, who believes that higher education must be deregulated if British universities are to compete with the world’s best. The policy is also strongly backed by Andrew Adonis, the head of Downing Street’s policy unit, a former Liberal Democrat and Lord Jenkins's official biographer. The role of the former SDP figures such as Lord Jenkins is particularly incendiary, with many MPs still bitter about the history of the breakaway Social Democrats in the 1980s. There have also been suggestions that Peter Mandelson, the former Northern Ireland secretary and another hate figure for the left, is also actively supporting the deregulation of elite university's fees. Mr Brown has also signalled his scepticism about top-up fees, which he believes could hamper the government's long-term goal of getting 50 per cent of all children into higher education.

Harvard overturns bar on Oxford poet
Harvard University has voted to reinvite the Oxford poet, Tom Paulin, to read his work there, one week after it withdrew the invitation amid protests at his opinion that Jewish settlers in the West Bank should be "shot dead". English department academics voted to overturn the decision, faculty chairman Lawrence Buell said, out of "widespread concern and regret for the fact that the decision not to hold the event could easily be seen, and indeed has been seen - both within Harvard and beyond - as an unjustified breach of the principle of free speech within the academy". Students and tutors had protested after Mr Paulin, who is lecturing at Columbia University in New York but is based at Hertford College, Oxford, had been invited to give Harvard's Morris Gray poetry reading, scheduled for last week. It was cancelled, the English department said, by mutual consent.

Human body dissected as audience squirms
The first public autopsy in Britain for 170 years was carried out last night beneath a Rembrandt painting and in the presence of two policemen, a paying audience of 500 people and a television crew. The body of a German man in his 70s was dissected in an art gallery in East London by the controversial scientist Professor Gunther von Hagens, scarcely 24 hours after the government had told him it would be illegal and warned him he faced arrest. The audience witnessed the top being sawn off the man's skull and watched his torso being emptied but saw no blood or gore.
(Daily Telegraph, Independent, Guardian, Times, Daily Mail)

Boards to justify A-level changes
The body responsible for monitoring A-level standards has reduced the power of the heads of examining boards to change grades awarded to students. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said yesterday that chief executives would have to account for changes they made to grade boundaries if they were made against the wishes of senior examiners at their boards.
(Times, Daily Telegraph, Independent)

EU poses 'threat' to clinical trials
Regulations to harmonise clinical trials across Europe could have the opposite effect, creating additional costs and bureaucracy that might threaten research, the head of a leading European cancer organisation, the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer, warned yesterday. He told a conference in Frankfurt that the EU Directive on Good Clinical Practice adopted in 2001 "may kill off a lot of academic research without improving patients' safety or the quality of science and cancer care".
(Financial Times)

A gathering of bioscience boffins
The FT takes a look at Liverpool University's new bio-sciences incubator, which won a £3.5 million grant from the European Union's Objective One programme for Britain's poorest regions.
(Financial Times)

The bureaucracy busters
Red tape is the bane of further education colleges. Today, at a national conference, they will learn the outcome of an inquiry into the paperwork overload.

House full of books gives youngsters rich start
A love of reading is more important for children's academic success than their family's wealth and class, a study has found. Children from deprived backgrounds performed better in tests than those from more affluent homes if they enjoyed reading books, newspapers and comics in their spare time. The study, carried out by the Organisation for Economic and Social Development, which covered 31 countries, found encouraging children to read for pleasure could compensate for social problems that would usually affect their academic performance.
(Daily Mail)

Food shoppers appear to shun ethical goods
Food shoppers are unashamedly selfish, remaining unmoved by labels claiming products are environmentally friendly, high quality or fair to the developing world, a new study has found. Consumers mainly buy on price, taste and sell-by date, said the Institute of Grocery Distribution, the food industry research body. "Few consumers are willing to support or buy something that does not give them some direct benefit," the institute's report said.
(Financial Times)

Hay fever relief
Scientists in Australia have developed a nasal plug with a sticky filter to catch pollen before it can get up the nose, alleviating the symptoms of hay fever sufferers. New Scientist magazine reports that initial clinical trials have proved very successful.

Scientists piece together fossil fraud
An extinct species of fish-eating bird has been identified by palaeontologists as the other half of a fraudulent fossil that was once hailed as the "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds. In a study published in the journal Nature , a team led by Zhonghe Zhou of China's Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeanthropology in Beijing has closed the book on the controversy by identifying the extinct species of bird that was used to make the fossilised chimera.

German postmen put dogs on couch
German postmen are being taught how to psychoanalyse dogs in an attempt to reduce the growing number of attacks. The classes are the latest initiative by postal authorities to tackle the problem. Last year Deutsche Post filed 1,874 complaints against dog owners. Attempts to make owners erect electrified fences have foundered, and a plan to let postmen use CS gas against dogs has also been shelved. A Deutsche Post spokesman, Friedrich Buttgereit, said: "People often see it as a subject for jokes but it's no joking matter." He said the attacks meant more than 12,000 lost working days, especially at Christmas.

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