The week in higher education – 1 March 2018

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the world’s media

March 1, 2018
Week in HE illustration (1 March 2018)

A UK university’s “happiness tsar” is awarding “happy badges” to help students who are stressed out by exams, The Sunday Telegraph reported on 25 February. To help the University of Buckingham become the UK’s first “positive university”, creative writing lecturer Cherry Coombe has been handing out gold badges to staff and students who have “improved the work environment”. The first badges – which are shaped like traditional prefect badges and are emblazoned with the word “happiness” – were given to students who recently helped to organise a float in a local parade, which was somewhat bizarrely based on the none-too-cheery BBC One marital breakdown drama Doctor Foster. “My aim is that absolutely everyone in the university has a happiness badge,” said Ms Coombe, who wanted to “acknowledge optimism and resilience” and ensure that students were “not falling over the waterfall” into depression. “The idea is to stay buoyant and keep surfing the wave,” explained the merry mixed-metaphor fan.

One institution that may be looking to boost happiness on campus is New York University, which issued a public apology and fired its director of food service this week after students pointed out that the food it served during Black History Month was racially insensitive. First-year student Nia Harris alerted several deans and NYU president Andrew Hamilton to the offensive meal, which comprised of watermelon-flavoured water and collard greens, The Independent reported on 22 February. In a letter, which she shared on Facebook, Ms Harris suggested that if the school wants to “learn how to celebrate Black history and culture during this month, you can ask the black students at this school instead of patronising us with Kool Aid, watermelon, and ribs”. The letter received more than 800 reactions on the social media site and was shared close to 300 times, according to The Independent.

A Channel 4 exposé has revealed that the University of Surrey paid £1,600 to bring its new vice-chancellor’s dog from Australia to the UK, said the Sunday Express on 25 February. Dispatches – which was due to air more revelations about vice-chancellors’ pay and perks on 26 February – found that the university forked out the cash to bring Max Lu’s Maltese pooch Oscar with him to Guildford in 2016, the Express said. While Surrey insisted that the expenditure was part of “reasonable relocation costs” of £15,000 in total for Professor Lu and his family, Conservative MP Robert Halfon described the outlay as “comparable to duckhouses which caused the expenses scandal for MPs”. The Channel 4 programme, which drew on a sector-wide Freedom of Information request by the University and College Union, discovered that institutions were spending, on average, £20,000 a year on expenses for managers – with the revelations about jet-setting university executives only likely to fuel discontent on the academic picket lines across the country.

Channel 4’s take on “Britain’s University Spending Scandal” was certainly not the only good kicking delivered to UK higher education in the past seven days. Those tuning in to BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View on 25 February will have heard the political philosopher John Gray warn about the militant left-wing ideologues supposedly running social science departments in his talk, “The Dangers of a Higher Education”, which pinned a great many of society’s ills on the graduates and PhDs churned out by universities. Meanwhile, The Times’ front page on 26 February highlighted how “embattled universities” would need to take action on “high pay, grade inflation and support for disadvantaged students” under the regime of the new regulator, the Office for Students. Universities minister Sam Gyimah did little to lift the mood of under-fire institutions, tweeting on 25 February that those that had docked pay off striking lecturers should give the money to “student benefit” funds, which could include “compensation”. With Theresa May putting the boot into the sector over its performance in last week’s funding review speech, universities will surely be glad to see the back of a particularly gloomy February.

A US professor has found a creative antidote to his personal political frustrations. The unnamed teacher, from the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, challenged students to come up with a tweet worthy of getting him blocked by Donald Trump, the Mail Online reported. Addressing an email to his class, the professor promised his winning student five extra points towards their final grade along with a “free absence”. The tweets, which must not contain profanity or personal threats, will be posted one by one from the professor’s Twitter account until the end of the semester. A screen grab of the email went viral on the social media platform after it was posted by an undergraduate, Erin Cary, who sought ideas from the public to help her with the challenge. 

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