The week in higher education

May 23, 2013

Just as relations between open-access advocates and their bête noire, the publisher Elsevier, were starting to thaw ever so slightly, a PR disaster for the company threatens to plunge it back into the ice age. A flurry of outraged tweets followed last week’s revelation that a trade association of internet firms, known as NetChoice, of which Elsevier is a member, had posted on its blog an article condemning proposed open-access mandates in several US states. Among a number of puzzling and peculiar reasons cited was the assertion that such mandates would “deny in-state professors the opportunity for high-profile publications in paid journals”. The article has prompted calls to restart the boycott of Elsevier, launched last year in protest against its initial support for a US bill that would have outlawed open-access mandates. But Elsevier’s vice-president for global corporate relations, Tom Reller, insisted that the company had not seen the article before it was posted and described its wording as “strange, sloppy and not ours”. He said Elsevier supports open access but opposes “inflexible, one-size-fits-all post-publication embargo periods”.

A medical researcher is claiming that her good looks have made it impossible for her to build a career in science, the Sunday Mirror reported on 19 May. Laura Fernee, 33, was forced to leave her £30,000 job in scientific research two years ago because her “slim figure, attractive face and glossy hair” made her a target for sleazy advances from male colleagues and bitchiness from jealous female co-workers, the paper said. Dr Fernee’s beauty was so comspelling that she was once told to sit facing a different direction during after-work drinks to stop male colleagues focusing on her, she said. Has Dr Fernee lifted the lid on a different type of sexism in the academy - the flip side of the “too ugly for TV” diatribes directed at classicist Mary Beard? Perhaps, but others might argue that Dr Fernee seems more intent on becoming the new Samantha Brick than the next Marie Curie.

Wild geese have been causing havoc at the University of Warwick by dive- bombing and pecking students, the Daily Mail reported gleefully on 20 May. A mother goose and her mate attacked students unaware that they had passed just yards away from the angry birds’ nest close to a hall of residence. One unfortunate man had to dive for cover to avoid one of the Canada geese in full cry, while others fled in terror pursued by the determined wildfowl. “There have always been a lot of geese on campus, but I’ve never seen any as angry as this,” said Malaysian business student Zhi Chow, who captured the unfolding chaos on camera from the safety of his room.

He has probably lost count of his enemies: now education secretary Michael Gove has another name to add to the list of his critics. John O’Dowd, Northern Ireland’s education minister, has rebuffed Mr Gove’s plans for a stand-alone A level in the province, saying AS levels should remain part of the overall qualification (although he does want January resits to be curtailed). In an announcement on 20 May, Mr O’Dowd, who launched his own review of the examinations system in October, added that he also disagreed with plans for the Russell Group to lead a review of A-level content - a move that even the Russell Group is not madly keen on.

Major Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station will aid many vital scientific research projects, David Willetts wrote in The Daily Telegraph on 21 May. The UK’s first astronaut for two decades will study new materials, propulsion technology and the effect of weightlessness on bone density during his six months orbiting 250 miles above the Earth, the universities and science minister said. It’s going to be a busy time for Major Peake, a former Apache helicopter pilot, who will need a fearsome array of skills for the tasks ahead. Let’s hope one of his talents is the ability to strum an acoustic guitar, as Mr Willetts is keen on replicating the media attention generated by Commander Chris Hadfield’s recent performance of David Bowie’s Space Oddity from the ISS. “After Bowie’s Major Tom, Major Tim is next,” Mr Willetts says. Expect Britain’s Got Talent in Space to be launched soon.

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