Today's news

August 26, 2003

Ministers set for new push over tuition fees
Ministers are preparing to relaunch their controversial student top-up fees policy this autumn, after privately admitting that they have failed to convince MPs and the public about the merits of allowing universities to charge up to £3,000 a year. A concerted effort to explain the proposals will see the term "top-up fees" replaced with "individualised graduate tax" when discussions with disgruntled MPs get under way next month. The Department for Education and Skills said: "We need to work really hard on explaining what the package really is as opposed to what people think it is. There are misconceptions and we will be tackling them."
(Times, Financial Times)

Ritalin abuse hits students looking for exam boost
A new kind of drug abuse is sweeping university campuses in North America and is expected to come to Britain. Faced with the pressure of exams and essay deadlines, students are abandoning the traditional crutches of coffee, Pro-Plus and cans of Red Bull for Ritalin, a stimulant drug best known as a treatment for hyperactive children. Users say it helps them to focus and to concentrate. The Ritalin craze has sparked a debate on the ethics of using drugs for cognitive enhancement.

UK research base focused on two sectors
Two broad sectors dominate Britain's industrial research base - pharmaceuticals and biotechnology and aerospace and defence, according to an analysis of US patent filings. In response, Lord Sainsbury, minister for science and innovation, said that a country the size of Britain was bound to have an industrial profile that was more concentrated than its academic research base. Lord Sainsbury said that the university research base needs strength in all areas. He is expected to publish an innovation review in October.
(Financial Times)

Drop-out rates soar on vocational courses
Millions of pounds are being wasted on vocational courses at colleges of further education where only half the students qualify. New vocational degrees at some of the newer universities are also recording record drop-out rates. Only 43 per cent completed and passed national vocational qualifications (NVQs) in England last year and 55 per cent passed the more demanding GNVQs. The high failure rate was revealed by the Learning and Skills Council after it looked for the first time at whether students complete the whole of a course and if they qualify at the end.
(Daily Telegraph)

MORI Graduate Prospects poll results
More than one in ten graduates is taking a gap year before starting work. The internet has become more popular than university careers services with students in the search for job vacancies and postgraduate course information. (Times, 25 August). Graduates have said 'No' to getting news of job opportunities on text messages (Financial Times, 25 August)

Top A-level students facing extra exams
After another record-breaking year for A levels, thousands of sixth-formers may have to sit extra exams on top of their A levels from 2005 if they want to win places at the best universities. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service is encouraging greater use of Advanced Extension Awards, which were launched in 2002. Adding AEAs would allow some universities to make offers based on an even higher points score. (Daily Mail). Also, Letter: Oxbridge's entrance system is as fair as it gets (Daily Telegraph). Affluent pupils who sit new university entrance tests will have access to professional coaching (Times, 25 August).

Faulty gene gives clue to tackling dyslexia
Scientists in Finland have found a single gene that goes wrong in many people with dyslexia, advancing the prospect of pre-school tests to identify children at risk of the language disorder. Writing today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they say, however, that several combinations of genetic factors may be responsible for dyslexia.
(Times, Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph)

£500K award for scientists to build thinking robot
Scientists from the universities of Essex and Bristol have been given the biggest ever grant to build a "conscious robot". The work will not only bring the scores of intelligent, self-aware machines that populate science fiction a step closer, it could also provide valuable clues on how human consciousness develops.
(Guardian, 25 August)

Nasa launches telescope to unlock space secrets
Nasa successfully launched a £1.3 billion space telescope today. The Space Infrared Telescope Facility will allow astronomers to observe distant stars and galaxies that are currently invisible even to the Hubble Space Telescope, offering fresh insights into the evolution of the cosmos.
(Times, Independent)

Babies give scientists lesson in early learning
A New York University researcher reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences today that babies learn to follow objects with their eyes at between four and six months old - earlier than previously thought. They even work out where the objects are going to end up when they go out of view.

Romans put a sock in it
Archaeologists digging in Southwark, London, say that the Romans may have started the fashion crime for which we are mocked in the rest of Europe to this day: wearing socks with sandals. A life-size bronze foot, unearthed last month and dated to the 2nd century AD, clearly shows that Roman Britons wore socks with their sandals.

Microlights teach birds to migrate
Scientists attempting to revive the fortunes of the northern bald ibis, a bird that died out from Europe more than 400 years ago, are using microlight aircraft to teach it how to migrate. 21 zoo-bred ibises left Windischgarten in the Austrian Alps last week to begin their two-week journey to southern Tuscany.
(Daily Telegraph)

Geriatrics: Wrinkled, but not creased up
Scientists at the Baycrest centre for geriatric care in Toronto report in the September issue of the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society that age does not destroy your sense of humour. But by 73, they say that you might be finding it difficult to get the joke.

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