The week in higher education – 22 October 2015

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the national press

十月 22, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (22 October 2015)

Bombarding a section of the brain with magnetic energy could reduce xenophobia, The Daily Telegraph reported on 16 October. In what sounds like a sinister experiment dreamed up by Universities UK’s pro-European Union campaign, researchers at the University of York have found a way of performing mind control, the paper said. Those exposed to magnetism were almost 30 per cent more positive in their feelings towards an immigrant who criticised their country compared with those who were not, the study found. Exposure to magnetic energy can also reduce an individual’s belief in God, says the study, whose results were published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. The experiment helped to show how people react when areas of the brain responsible for “basic threat-response functions” are affected, leading to a lower reliance on ideologies.

A top astronomer is to quit the University of California, Berkeley after an investigation upheld claims that he had sexually harassed female students, The Guardian reported on 14 October. Geoffrey Marcy was set to remain in post after Berkeley decided not to sack him, despite confirming the truth of allegations around inappropriate advances towards female students over more than a decade. But what many saw as Professor Marcy’s “non-apology”, in which he admitted his advances were “unwelcomed by some women”, served to stoke the controversy further – resulting in his resignation. “While I don’t agree with each complaint that has been made, it’s clear my actions made some women uncomfortable and, for that, I sincerely apologise,” Marcy said subsequently. In a twist on the usual “trial by media” claims associated with these sort of cases, The New York Times was dragged into the scandal after being accused of producing an overly sympathetic portrait of Marcy, the Salon website reported on 14 October. A letter signed by 250 scientists condemned the paper’s depiction of a “misunderstood, empathetic educator”, while quoting Marcy’s wife’s view that her husband was the victim “in the court of hysterical public opinion” – something that painted “female targets…as overly sensitive troublemakers”.

Plans to turn a student nightclub into a “run-down, oppressive slum” for a “poverty simulation” evening have been called off after a public outcry, the Huffington Post reported on 15 October. “Will you descend into the gloom to encounter the daily reality of devastating poverty?” asked the organisers of the “Slum in the Cellars: Poverty Simulation” due to take place at Clare College, Cambridge last week. But the event, billed as “fun and insightful”, was soon branded crass and insensitive by online commentators, causing the university branch of charity Giving What We Can and non-profit Empathy Action to abandon the event. “This event is deeply disturbing, inappropriate and an affront to the dignity of the people who actually live in poverty every day,” said Nungari Mwangi of the African Society at Cambridge.

Sir Alan Sugar’s scorn for higher education is well known given that he previously branded it “a waste of time”. But he clearly rates graduates in the boardroom when choosing winners of The Apprentice, according to statisticians at the University of Sheffield, the Sheffield Star reported on 15 October. Analysing the performance of 159 previous contestants on the BBC One show, academics found five “secrets” to success – one of which was having good academic qualifications. “Less qualified contestants used to do well but highly qualified professionals have dominated in recent years,” claimed the analysis. Lord Sugar’s anti-university stance has been less vocal of late, so could another university alumnus be about to triumph again this year?

Given Lord Sugar’s views, it is a surprise that he didn’t provide a quote for a thinktank report on further education that ruffled a few university feathers this week. According to the study from Policy Exchange, the government should cut half a billion pounds of funding from higher education to safeguard the FE sector in the next spending review. The report claimed that funding for universities has increased markedly since the introduction of tuition fees, with a rise in overall income of 26 per cent since 2009-10 and universities sitting on £12.3 billion of unrestricted reserves. In comparison, FE colleges have had a significant drop in their revenue. According to the National Audit Office, more than one in four of the entire FE college network could in effect go bankrupt within a year. But Universities UK said that it should not be an “either-or” choice between the two sectors and it was “misleading to suggest universities are awash with cash reserves”.

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