The week in higher education

A sideways look at the week’s big stories

January 17, 2013

• Is University Challenge quizmaster Jeremy Paxman guilty of favouritism towards Oxbridge contestants? The Daily Mail’s columnist Ephraim Hardcastle believes so. The diary column notes on 9 January how Mr Paxman, a University of Cambridge alumnus, seemed loath to give credit to the University of Manchester after its team trounced Magdalen College, Oxford by 220 points to 90. Paxman gently chided Magdalen for “a period of indolence” and declared that the result was “not really a fair representation of the contest”.

• A student triggered one of Westminster’s more bizarre political stories after asking the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, if he owned a “onesie”, to prove he was “a man of the people”. “I was actually given a big green onesie in Sheffield which I have kept in its packaging,” responded Mr Clegg in an LBC Radio phone-in on 10 January, adding that he had never worn the all-in-one novelty garment. Later that day, his interlocutor “Harry from Sheffield” was unmasked as Lib Dem activist Harry Matthews, a physics student at the University of Sheffield, who had done some work experience in Mr Clegg’s office over the summer. So was the “onesie” question a Lib Dem plot to rig the show with a planted question? “I should clarify, I had no idea who he was,” said Mr Clegg of his former intern, The Times reported on 11 January. Maybe Mr Clegg should know by now that his engagements with students - however innocuous the subject - are bound to end in disaster?

• Shabana Mahmood, previously Labour’s shadow higher education minister, has a new job - she is now shadow minister for universities and science, meaning her brief now exactly mirrors that of David Willetts. The rejigging of Labour briefs saw Chi Onwurah, the shadow science minister, become shadow Cabinet Office minister. In the immediate wake of the reshuffle on 11 January, a Labour parliamentary aide told a lobby researcher it was expected that Ms Mahmood “will pick up most of the science stuff”. Ms Mahmood could even call herself “shadow minister for universities and most of the science stuff” - such a title might reflect the amount of attention Labour has devoted to science until now.

• Universities have enjoyed a last-minute surge in applications, The Sunday Times reported on 13 January. Based on the newspaper’s own survey of universities shortly before the 15 January deadline, overall applications for 2013 are 2 per cent down on last year - a less severe drop than the 5.6 per cent year-on-year fall recorded by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in mid-December. The University of Exeter experienced a 25 per cent increase, while Aston University saw a 23 per cent surge and Swansea University a 19 per cent rise in applications, the newspaper said. The poll “indicates fears that tens of thousands of students would turn their backs on higher education are largely unfounded”, the paper claimed. Official Ucas figures published at the end of month - for all institutions, rather than those willing to declare statistics voluntarily - will reveal if that is genuinely the case.

• A renowned internet activist accused of stealing millions of journal articles has been found dead in an apparent suicide, prompting much soul-searching on the open-access issue in the US. Aaron Swartz, 26, faced 13 charges relating to computer and wire fraud following accusations that he stole journal articles from the subscription service JSTOR using a hacked Massachusetts Institute of Technology account. Swartz’s family has attacked the US justice system over the decision to prosecute him for “an alleged crime that had no victims”, and criticised MIT for failing to support the freedom of information champion, The Guardian reported on 14 January. Swartz, who at the age of 14 helped to create RSS feeds, which allow users to subscribe to online information, was a fellow at Harvard University between 2010 and 2011 and also worked at MIT with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. “Hackers for right, we are one down…Let us weep,” tweeted the influential British academic, who led the tributes to Swartz.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.