The week in higher education – 23 May 2019

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

May 23, 2019
Source: Nick Newman

The UK government’s long-awaited review of post-18 education is expected to be published shortly, BBC News reported. The BBC said the government wants to announce the recommendations from the review’s independent panel “soon after the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of May”. But “the government is not expected to make any full response – with the review’s findings being ‘decoupled’ from the decision-making, which will be linked to the spending review scheduled for later this year”, it added. Curiously, the BBC also said that a “lower fee of about £7,500 is expected to be part of Theresa May’s ‘legacy’ plans”. Given that the government response to the review is likely to be marshalled by Ms May’s successor, that the Treasury appears to dislike the panel recommendations and that the likelihood of any controversial measures being passed through the current House of Commons looks faint, it seems premature at best to describe the panel’s report as amounting to a “legacy”.


Meanwhile, in Australia, the prospect of a review of post-school education is off the table after Labor’s federal election defeat. The shock win for the ruling Liberal-National coalition will have left some in the nation’s university sector feeling glum. Sector figures had hoped for a Labor victory, as the party had committed to bankrolling unlimited numbers of undergraduate places, raising research spending and establishing a A$300 million (£162 million) future fund for university infrastructure, as well as a far-reaching review. So a period of constricted funding beckons, at least until the next general election in three years – a period equivalent to the average political lifespan of three Australian prime ministers.


The best way to end the fostering of “bigoted leftism” in British higher education would be to “get rid of universities altogether”, according to Sir Roger Scruton, in comments reported by The Times. The philosopher, recently sacked as a UK government housing adviser for making remarks perceived as antisemitic and Islamophobic, said setting up universities that did not receive state funding was one option. “But there’s the other way forward, which is to get rid of universities altogether. That is to say, make sure their sources of funding dry up,” he said. Hopefully, Sir Roger was paying attention when it was reported that SOAS University of London law academic Gunnar Beck was standing as a candidate for Germany’s far-right Alternative für Deutschland party in the European elections. Although staff and students planned protests, SOAS said it was “committed to the rights of academic freedom of speech within the law, despite the painful choices to which it gives rise”. While a far-right nationalist appears to have flourished even in a hotbed of leftist radicalism such as SOAS, don’t expect Sir Roger to be rejoicing in the scent of British higher education’s blossoming ideological diversity any time soon.


The mystifying 15th-century Voynich manuscript is said by some to be medieval Latin; others claim it is written in Hebrew, Old Turkish, Manchu or even Cornish. No wonder the University of Bristol was excited to announce that one of its academics had cracked the code in less than two weeks, “using a combination of lateral thinking and ingenuity”. Gerard Cheshire, a research associate, argued that the manuscript was in fact a reference book written by in a lost language called “proto-Romance”. His findings passed peer review and were published in the journal Romance Studies, but they failed to pass the biggest peer review exercise of all: Twitter. “Sorry folks. This is just more aspirational, circular, self-fulfilling nonsense,” said one academic. “The correct word is ‘batshit’,” tweeted another. In a somewhat embarrassing turn, Bristol said it would “seek further validation” on Dr Cheshire’s research. We imagine the ongoing discussion will take longer than two weeks to conclude.


Finally, a good news story. A billionaire philanthropist has pledged to repay student debt for the entire 2019 graduating class of his alma mater. Delivering a guest speech at Morehouse College, a private, all-male, historically black college in Atlanta, technology investor Robert Smith told an audience of 400 graduating students: “We’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus.” Mr Smith, who received an honorary doctorate at the same ceremony, added: “This is my class, 2019. And my family is making a grant to eliminate their student loans…I know my class will pay this forward.” According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the announcement was met with a stunned silence, followed by cheering and sobbing. With the year group’s total debt estimated at $40 million (£31.4 million), Mr Smith may soon find his inbox filling with offers of honorary degrees from half of the universities in America.

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