International News

International News

Letter from London

Blair’s last hurrah?

There is every likelihood that Gordon Brown, the current chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), will become prime minister when Tony Blair finally steps down soon. As that time gets nigh, interest is growing in the education policies he might introduce. He has already made it clear that he will continue to prioritise education, as did Tony Blair with his famous "education, education, education" mantra.

Yet despite rising discontent, Blair is firmly in the saddle recently expressing that before surrendering the seals of office, he would like to complete the "unfinished business" of university funding. To this end he has announced a new government initiative under which universities will be encouraged to build corpuses with donations from alumni, corporates and philanthropists, through a government endorsed endowment scheme. Anyone who gives a cash gift to a university will receive a booster shot from the public exchequer, so that every £ 2 donated will be matched by £ 1 from the government. Up to 75 universities in England will be eligible under the scheme, while those without any fundraising departments will be given aid to establish fundraising centres.

After permitting the controversial higher tuition fees chargeable by universities and pursuing his ambition to get 50 percent of young people into higher education by 2010, this radical new proposal by Blair is the logical next step in higher education reforms. The US is the most obvious model to study, with top American universities such as Harvard, having accumulated massive corpuses through matched funding schemes. As a consequence the most highly rated and well endowed American universities are able to follow ‘needs-blind’ admission policies under which handsome subsidies are offered to meritorious students who cannot afford their tuition fees.

The task force in the UK which made the recommendation was led by Prof. Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, who contradicts the belief that Britons are tight-fisted about responding to appeals from academia. He says it is wrong to assume there is no "giving culture" in the UK. On the contrary he concluded there is no "asking culture" in British academia.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, the vice-chancellors’ umbrella organisation, is very bullish about the new scheme. "This is a new and creative initiative which will provide a terrific boost to university finances. The endowment scheme will be a very welcome addition to the public funding on which universities rely."

When this scheme is up and running, it may finally still the plaintive cry for money by universities and help retain young graduates to pursue their careers in the UK. However, academics warn against expecting miracles. A "culture of giving" can’t be created overnight and Britons may prove less generous than their US counterparts.

(Jacqueline Thomas is a London-based academic)

United States

Obstinate greying of campus America

American universities, concerned about a shortage of staff when those hired four decades ago retired, are facing the opposite problem: staff who don’t want to leave. Faculty taken on during the vast expansion of higher education in the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom are now in their seventies and eighties, are reluctant to take retirement.

Young academics are becoming frustrated. Universities, too, while acknowledging the value of experience, are worried not only about continuing to pay the considerably higher salaries commanded by many older employees, but also about keeping their faculties fresh and dynamic in an increasingly competitive market.

The percentage of full-time faculty aged 70 years or older has tripled in the past ten years. A third of US faculty are now aged 55 or older, compared with fewer than a quarter in 1989, according to the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at Los Angeles. The proportion of those aged under 45 years has fallen from 41 to 34 percent in the same period.

Elite universities have an even greater number of ageing faculty. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 27 percent of those in mathematics and 6.4 percent overall are aged over 70. At Harvard it is more than 9 percent, while at Columbia University it is nearly 10 percent.

This is a result of the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which banned most US employers from setting a mandatory retirement age. Universities were given an exemption in 1986, allowing them to force professors to retire at 70, but the exemption was not renewed and it expired.

The lack of a standard retirement age means universities "will not be able to hire the number of young people that a vibrant institution must hire to stay at the forefront", concluded a committee at Johns Hopkins University.

Some schools have introduced incentives for older academics to leave. Columbia, for example offers medical and dental coverage for life and continued access to university facilities to faculty who step down.


Academic exodus to Kurdistan

A private American university has been granted a charter to open in the Kurdish city of Sulimaniyah "next year or the year after". The move, announced by Idriss Hadi Salih, higher education minister in the Kurdistan regional government, is part of the effort to stem the brain drain afflicting Iraqi academia. The American University of Iraq, inspired by institutions in Cairo and Beirut, will receive $10.5 million (Rs.4.62 crore) in funding from US agencies, as well as finance from some Kurdish sources.

As violence has escalated in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, increasing numbers of academics have fled to the relatively safe Kurd-controlled north in the hope of finding employment in its fast-expanding higher education sector. Iraqi Kurdistan now boasts five universities and 15 higher education institutes, employing a total of 3,000 staff. But with 60,000 students, the region is experiencing a shortage of university teachers.

The education ministry runs scholarships "for the significant amount of teachers from Baghdad" leaving the capital and moving to Kurdistan "for security reasons". There is a special programme for filling teaching posts with teachers from other parts of Iraq. But the continuing expansion of higher education is expected to create a further shortage, which the ministry is making plans to accommodate.

The January 17 bombing of Baghdad’s Mustansiriyah University has given impetus to the appeal launched by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (Cara). Cara warns that academics are being systematically targeted. More than 200 academics have been assassinated since 2003, including Issam al-Rawi, head of the Association of University Professors, who said last year: "Political groups inside and outside the country are seeking to rid Iraq of individuals capable of independent thought."


Firm opposition to private colleges

Applications to open 11 private colleges in Israel have been shelved while objections from public universities are being considered by the Council for Higher Education (CHE). Yehezkel Teller, deputy chairman of the council, says the decision reflects political and academic pressure at the highest level. Prof. Teller, whose five-year tenure is almost up and who supports the private colleges, says: "We should put our finger on the academic level (sic) and not give up anything."

CHE has received applications for permits from 11 colleges — about half of them new institutions and the rest branches of overseas universities seeking recognition as Israeli institutions. If all 11 requests are approved, more than half of all Israeli colleges and universities will be private institutions. There are currently 18 public colleges and universities and nine private ones.

Public colleges feel threatened by private ones which are being granted special exemptions by CHE. Instead of having to produce four generations of graduating classes before being allowed to award Masters, some have been given these powers from the beginning. Public universities claim that the CHE has been licensing private schools that do not meet its own criteria, and also that too many private schools would leave public ones unable to compete for teachers and students.

Yuli Tamir, the education minister and chair of CHE, argues that "no new private colleges should be licensed" until a thorough study of the implications of such a move is conducted. "I oppose private education, but I understand that there are governmental promises that must be kept," he says.


Women in science initiative

A committee set up to attract more women to careers in science has proposed that French universities and research centres spell out their policies to achieve equality, that conferences be subsidised according to the prominence they give to female scientists, and that Ph D grants continue to be paid during maternity leave.

The measures compiled by the group of academics have been approved by Francois Goulard, junior minister for higher education and research. The committee was established last January. The objectives of its first report were to make science attractive to women, combat the glass ceiling that restricts promotion and to better accommodate pregnancy and parenthood.

Claudine Hermann — a physicist, founder and chair of the association Femmes et Sciences and a member of the equality committee — says that although girls perform better than boys at school, in secondary and higher education they are less likely to specialise in scientific or technical subjects, or to attend selective grandes ecoles or technology institutes. In the workplace, women are concentrated in lower-status jobs. Only 6.3 percent of senior managers in the 5,000 leading companies in France are female. In the public sector, women represent 57 percent of employees but only 12 percent of senior managers. Some 40 percent of university lecturers are women whereas only 17 percent of professors are.

"If we want to advance equality in our country, and especially in science, research and higher education, it is essential to promote balanced representation of men and women in all collective bodies such as committees and juries… and to adapt criteria for promotion to different types of professional background, particularly taking into account the constraints linked to parenthood," says Goulard.

Other recommendations he has accepted are the development of gender studies in university, and increasing the number of categories in the annual Irene Joliot Curie prize awarded to outstanding female scientists. Initiatives to make science more attractive to girls at school should also be encouraged, he says.


Research collaboration perils

The Russian authorities’ ‘indifference’ towards science is driving scholars to seek Western funding, putting them at risk of charges of espionage, said Anatoly Lokot, a member of the Duma (Parliament), in a recent interview to the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station. His comment was sparked by the case of Oleg Korobeynichev, a laboratory chief at the Institute of Kinetics and Combustion of the Siberian branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences who is accused of passing data on solid rocket fuel to a research centre of the US department of defense.

Lokot says there is no logic in the accusation. Prof. Korobeynichev’s contract with the Americans, dates back four years, a time when "the state had no intention of financing any scientific research work". To keep research teams together and to continue working, scientists had to seek funding where they could, usually abroad. Under Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, foreign funding was tolerated, even encouraged. The government had little option: the salaries of academics and scientists were often months in arrears. Even when Prof. Korobeynichev began working with the Americans, "control over security matters (in Russia) was as weak as could be imagined", according to Lokot.

Since then, although scientists’ salaries remain low and the little existing state funding is focused on a few prestige establishments, the official attitude has changed. Now, scientists receiving foreign support are increasingly at risk.

Often the allegations take on bizarre overtones. Prof. Korobeynichev, for example, faces charges connected not only to his own research, he is also accused of attempting to steal data from the Vektor Virology and Biotechnology Research Centre and the Chkalov Aircraft Plant.

Anatoly Babkin was accused of giving the US classified data on the Shkval rocket-propelled torpedo — although the information was classified only seven years after he had left the job in question. Oscar Kaibyshev, a metals physicist from Ufa who provided a South Korean firm metallurgical information relating to disc castings for motor vehicles, received a six-year suspended sentence because, according to Russia’s Federal Security Service, the information could also be applied in rocket construction. But Dr. Kaibyshev asserts that no "dual-use" technology was involved and that his research was of a type specifically exempt from export controls.

Although the high-profile cases have sparked protests from Russian human rights campaigners, fellow academics have remained largely silent, possibly fearing similar charges.


Sectarian strife spreads to academia

A verbal argument between students at the Beirut Arab University in January turned violent, spreading out to the streets and leaving two students dead and more than 160 students and protestors wounded. Students from the Sunni Muslim, pro-government Future Movement clashed with students from the anti-government Shiite Muslim Amal party in Beirut Arab University’s cafeteria. The clash came two days after thousands of Lebanese took to the streets as part of a strike by the opposition, led by Hizbullah, that left four dead and more than 60 wounded.

According to reports, the argument in the university spiralled out of hand, with sticks, bottles and broken furniture used in the fight. Amal supporters took refuge in a football stadium, while Future Movement supporters fought off Amal supporters at the basketball stadium. The army fired live rounds into the air to disperse students.

But with the country already tense from months of protests, the violence spilled into surrounding areas as hundreds of young men armed themselves with metal bars, bicycle chains and batons. Three people were shot dead, including two students.

There were clashes also at the Lebanese University, forcing it to close for the day. Other universities also closed. The American University of Beirut was lucky it was between semesters, so there were no students on campus. As a result of the riots, Khaled Qabbani, the education minister, cancelled classes at all public and private universities for three days to prevent the violence from spreading.


Decline and imminent fall

Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts which was founded in the 16th century and is alma mater of some of Italy’s most illustrious artists, is in turmoil after charges of malpractice from teachers and unions, and newspaper photographs of scenes of filth and decay.

For years there have been rumblings of discontent but now the conflicts are out in the open. A document released by a group of teachers speaks of "an unfettered exercise of power" and attacks the Accademia di Belle Arti’s director and academic senate for giving teaching posts to outsiders, rather than to teachers on the payroll. A statement by the unions demands that the Accademia’s directors respect "legality, transparency and competence" and accuses members of the senate of assigning to themselves additional posts with extra pay.

Italy’s largest national daily, the Corriere della Sera, ran a story on the academy with photographs of pieces of sculpture by students piled into a toilet and of casts of works by eminent artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries abandoned in heaps among the tools and cement sacks of workmen. The newspaper notes that in a just few years the number of students has dwindled from about 2,000 to 1,200 while the number of teaching posts has almost doubled. There are, for instance, 16 professors of anatomy.

Comments Gaetano Castelli, the set designer who is director of the academy: "Everything is according to the rules. The list (of appointments) circulating is not official and does not carry my signature. The health and safety inspections were ambushes, organised by certain professors who called the authorities and made sure they found something irregular."

One lecturer, who wanted to remain anonymous, says: "There is a war for power between factions. Factions are interested in controlling appointments and resources on the basis of exchanges of favours or sexual relations. The least of their concerns is the lack of studios and laboratories, the scarcity of basic materials such as paint and plaster. Most of the best teachers are not part of these factions, and they have a very difficult time just doing their jobs."

United States

Harvard’s presidential front runners

Following the mid-term resignation of Harvard University’s controversial president Dr. Larry Summers in June last year, the varsity has reportedly narrowed its hunt for a president to a handful of candidates: three Harvard administrators and a Nobel laureate.

Two of the finalists are female: Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School and former Clinton administration policy advisor; and Drew Gilpin Faust, dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Appointing a female president could help heal the rifts caused by Summers who resigned last summer, after creating a storm by questioning women’s ability in maths and science.

Also on the shortlist, according to Harvard students newspaper The Crimson, are Stevens Hyman, Harvard provost; and the only outsider, Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a winner of a Nobel prize in chemistry.

Previous reports put Cambridge University vice-chancellor Alison Richard in the running but Richard affirmed her "deep and unequivocal commitment" to serve out her term at Cambridge, which ends in 2010.

P.S. As we go to press Harvard University has confirmed the appointment of Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust as its president.


Hand built varsity for revolutionaries

It is still being built, but Brazil’s "university for revolutionaries" is taking in a fresh wave of militant students in a campus built brick-by-brick by landless farmers. The Florestan Fernandes University, named after a working class sociologist, took more than 1,000 members of the Movimento Sem Terra (MST) almost five years to construct from scratch in an extraordinary voluntary effort involving members from across 20 states in Brazil.

The campus in the state of Sao Paulo is equipped with a computer room running on open-source software, a cinema, a library with 15,000 donated books, a refectory, a 200-seater auditorium, four classrooms and four dormitories that sleep 200 people. Funds for the construction of the school came from sales of the book Land by photographer Sebastiao Salgado, European non-govermental organisations and individual donations. Salgado is a long-time supporter of the dynamic 23-year-old movement, which occupies unproductive land to push through agrarian reform in a country with one of the worst distributions of wealth in the world.

Typical courses include studies on revolutionary Latin American leaders from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to Allende in Chile. Students can learn how to be militants in the million-strong movement, and many courses are taught by sympathetic professors from Brazil’s leading universities.

The Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes offers undergraduate, Masters and specialist courses in partnership with 13 public universities and Brazil. Courses are recognised by the ministry of education and culture. Undergraduates are offered courses in, among other subjects, political philosophy, knowledge theory and rural sociology.

(Compiled from Times Educational Supplement and Times Higher Education Supplement)