The week in higher education

March 28, 2013

Anyone familiar with the views of Edzard Ernst may be surprised to learn that he was on the board of the journal Homeopathy. But this cognitive dissonance was ended last week when the journal sacked the University of Exeter’s semi-retired professor of complementary medicine, who believes that only 5 per cent of alternative treatments are “solidly based on positive evidence”. His letter of dismissal, reproduced on his blog, said the final straw was a blog he posted about Holocaust Memorial Day that allegedly “smeared” complementary medicine by associating it with the Nazis. Professor Ernst denied any attempt to establish guilt by association and lamented the journal’s loss of its only editorial board member with “the ability to openly and repeatedly display a critical attitude about homeopathy”. But by diluting scepticism, surely the journal must expect only to make it stronger.

Education secretary Michael Gove has accused the education professors who criticised his national curriculum reforms of peddling “bad academia”. Sir Michael Wilshaw then fleshed out his vague attack, with the Ofsted chief inspector saying academics needed to “get out of their ivory towers”, The Daily Telegraph reported on 22 March. The row follows a letter published last week in the Telegraph in which those “bad academics” claimed children would be forced to memorise “endless lists of spellings, facts and rules” - resulting in stifled creativity and development. Sadly, the academics fell into the trap of making a substantive point, supported by evidence, rather than engaging in playground-style name-calling.

A Jewish academic who claimed that the University and College Union’s policy on Palestine constituted harassment has been rebuked by an employment tribunal for misusing the legal process. Ronnie Fraser, a further education lecturer and founding director of Academic Friends of Israel, argued that the UCU was institutionally anti-Semitic owing to motions passed in favour of an academic boycott of Israel. Despite enlisting the services of Anthony Julius, divorce lawyer for Diana, Princess of Wales, and calling the prizewinning author Howard Jacobson to give evidence on his behalf, all of his 10 claims have been “dismissed in their totality”. Tribunal panel members said the suit was “an impermissible attempt to achieve a political end by litigious means” that showed a “worrying disregard for pluralism, tolerance and freedom of expression”. Mr Julius was chastised, with various complaints dismissed as “palpably groundless” and “obviously hopeless”. The “sorry saga” had acquired a “gargantuan scale” - it needed a 20-day hearing and 23 volumes of evidence - that was “manifestly excessive and disproportionate”, the tribunal said.

Unions for higher education staff are seeking a pay rise in 2013-14 that is likely to exceed 3 per cent. Representatives of the University and College Union, Unite, Unison, GMB and EIS, which represents staff at some Scottish universities, met the Universities and Colleges Employers Association on 26 March after submitting a national pay claim that at least matches the retail price index and includes a catch-up element to compensate for recent sub-inflation settlements. Negotiations will begin on 23 April. The unions stressed that institutions can afford a rise of more than the 1 per cent awarded this year, which equated to a real-terms pay cut. However, employers said a large part of universities’ surpluses would be needed to cover investment in infrastructure and the cost of borrowing, while negotiations would be taking place at a time of “major uncertainty”, with many suffering financial pain from this year’s fall in student numbers.

It is unlikely that tears will be shed for the UK Border Agency after Theresa May, the home secretary, announced on 26 March that it would be split into two organisations. Ms May said the much-derided agency had struggled for too long with a backlog of cases that had impeded its ability to remove illegal immigrants, although she claimed - probably to howls of laughter in universities - that its visa operation was “internationally competitive”. She said a key goal of the separate visa and immigration agency would be “customer satisfaction for businessmen and visitors who want to come here legally” - although maybe students and universities should be worried that they were not specifically mentioned.

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