The week in higher education

A sideways look at the week’s big stories

January 24, 2013
  • It might seem a little soon to worry about such matters, but where will the royal baby go to university? That was the issue raised by the Daily Mail on 15 January after St James’s Palace announced that the Duchess of Cambridge’s first child is due to be born in July. While its probable star sign - most likely to be Cancer - is good news for the emotional intelligence of the third in line to the throne (expect someone “soft, sensitive and affectionate”, according to the immensely accurate descriptions of reality provided by astrologers), babies born in the summer are “more likely to be regarded as below average by their teachers in reading, writing and maths, and are less likely to go to a Russell Group university”, the paper frets. Will the prince or princess be heading aged 18 to a cloistered college, a provincial red-brick or London Met? We will have to wait until 2031 to find out.
  • The so-called “feeding frenzy” for research stars appears to have started early, with an extra 1,000 professors recruited by UK universities last year. Two years before the cut-off for the 2014 research excellence framework, which will allocate £1.6 billion of annual research funding, the ranks of the professoriate swelled to 18,465 in 2011-12, a 5.7 per cent increase, according to figures released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency on 17 January. Meanwhile, the number of academic professionals employed in the sector - 181,385, excluding those on atypical contracts - remained roughly the same as in previous years. With the stakes in the REF so high, expect more universities to create new professorial posts for top researchers over the next few months.
  • As one of the UK’s most high-profile academics, Mary Beard is used to taking a bit of flak for speaking her mind. But the professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge said she had been shocked by some of the venomous internet trolling she has suffered after suggesting on BBC One’s Question Time that immigration had brought some benefits to Lincolnshire. The “gobsmacking” misogyny of many hateful postings on one site, easily accessible via Google, took “more than a few steps into sadism” and would be “quite enough to put many women off appearing in public (and) contributing to political debate”, she said on her A Don’s Life blog on 20 January.
  • A student is suing St Hugh’s College, Oxford for discriminating against poorer students, The Observer reported on 20 January. Damien Shannon, 26, was barred from taking up a place to study an MSc in economic history because he did not have access to at least £21,000 for fees and living costs, the paper said. Shannon, an Open University graduate, said he had enough to cover the course fees, but not the £12,900 living costs demanded by college authorities - a requirement which means that those without access to capital are “disproportionately discriminated against”, it is claimed. He said he could live more frugally on just £9,000 a year by skipping expensive college meals, but was rebuffed by St Hugh’s, which said that students need healthier finances to guard against anxiety or economic difficulty during their studies. “Oxford appears to be saying that those who cannot afford to dine within their colleges and socialise are not suitable for admission,” said Mr Shannon, writing on The Guardian website on 21 January. A House of Commons debate - secured by Mr Shannon’s MP, Hazel Blears - was due to be held on the case on 23 January.
  • The principal of St Mary’s University College, Twickenham has resigned. Philip Esler said he will leave the Catholic college with immediate effect, taking research and annual leave before concluding his time in office on 31 March. The move follows criticism of his leadership after theology scholar Anthony Towey was escorted from a lecture by security staff and suspended from St Mary’s after questioning the decision to merge his school with another. Professor Esler, who joined in October 2010, said “friction” over the merger meant that he had “become the focus of such interest from the Catholic media that there is a potential for St Mary’s…to suffer in consequence”.

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