The week in higher education

A sideways look at the week’s big stories

January 3, 2013

• Chancellor George Osborne has unveiled the recipients of £21.5 million in funding to find commercial uses for super-thin “miracle material” graphene. The biggest beneficiary, the University of Cambridge, was awarded more than £12 million for research into graphene flexible electronics and optoelectronics, which could include developments such as touch screens. The Treasury made the announcement on December, stepping into science funding territory one might expect to be ruled by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, and his department. Mr Osborne is said to have delighted in the hobbling of Mr Willetts’ career after his ill-fated grammar schools speech in 2007. Mr Osborne, then shadow chancellor, cackled that Mr Willetts would “never have my job”, according to a recent biography of our current Treasury supremo. After denying Mr Willetts the shadow chancellor’s role, how selfish of Mr Osborne to nick the best bits of his current job as well.

• In the slow news period between Christmas and New Year, an academic spat is just the thing to fill column inches. On December The Guardian featured criticism of Richard Dawkins by Peter Higgs, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at the University of Edinburgh, who is known for his theory about how particles gain their mass and who gives his name to the Higgs boson. Professor Higgs had told Spanish newspaper El Mundo that Professor Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, focused too much on fundamentalists in his critique of religion. “I mean, Dawkins in a way is almost a fundamentalist himself, of another kind,” Professor Higgs had said. However, no fresh comment from Professor Higgs was featured and Professor Dawkins “did not respond to a request for comment”. So, not much of a spat, then. But enough for a 1,000-word story in a national newspaper.

• Israel’s first settlement university has been created after the upgrade of a college in Ariel, a city inside the West Bank. The nation’s defence minister approved the creation of Ariel University on 24 December. A legal challenge by the Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities was quickly dismissed, The Jerusalem Post reported on December. The move will be grist to the mill of those calling for an academic boycott of Israel. Many in the University and College Union have pushed for such action, and ensured that the union refused to adopt a working definition of anti-Semitism at its 2011 conference. But with the UCU having been accused of anti-Semitism in an ongoing tribunal case - and strongly denying the accusations - the union’s leadership may be less than thrilled at the prospect of more Israel controversy.

• Plans developed under Margaret Thatcher to dismantle the welfare state included the end of public funding for higher education. Cabinet papers released under the 30-year rule reveal discussions in 1982 of proposals by the Central Policy Review Staff to slash public spending. After being encouraged by Mrs Thatcher to come up with radical plans, the thinktank advocated the abolition of the NHS, the introduction of “full-cost university tuition fees and breaking the link that then existed between welfare benefits and prices”, The Guardian wrote on 28 December. All very similar to today, some might say. But the Iron Lady would surely disapprove of the new student loans system, whose multibillion-pound injection of taxpayer-backed funding hardly amounts to rolling back the frontiers of the state.

• From theorising about the “God particle” to keeping a tight rein on pay for university staff, the achievements of those earning higher education gongs in the New Year Honours are many and varied. Peter Higgs, emeritus professor of theoretical physics at the University of Edinburgh, was one of only two people appointed to the Order of the Companions of Honour; the other was Olympics supremo Lord Coe. Professor Higgs gave his name to the Higgs boson, on which Cern, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, has been working. Knighted for services to higher education and their academic disciplines were Ian Diamond, vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, and Keith Burnett, vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield and former chair of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association.

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