The week in higher education – 5 March 2020

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

三月 5, 2020
Tony Benn cartoon

UK universities have generally laughed off accusations that they are “left-wing madrassas” hell-bent on brainwashing students with Marxist ideology. That charge, however, might be harder to shake off at a new institution planned by Labour deputy leader candidate Richard Burgon – the “Tony Benn University of Political Education”. Mr Burgon, the self-confessed “continuity Corbyn” candidate polling second in Labour’s deputy leadership race, told Labour List that he wanted to create a “living monument” to the late socialist MP. “You could have academics coming to your guest lectures, MPs past and present, biographers, historians, a wide range of people,” said Mr Burgon, who later explained on Twitter that the institution would have “free online courses in progressive history, alternative economics [and] climate and international justice”. While the suggestion was largely derided online, some might wonder how different Mr Burgon’s proposed curricula are compared with those found in some of the UK’s more left-leaning university faculties.

Cecil Rhodes’ statue may not have fallen at Oxford but it seems another controversial Victorian icon is about to be toppled – metaphorically, at least – after UCL agreed to remove the name of eugenicist Francis Galton from its famous laboratory. The move follows the publication of a long-awaited report into the university’s connection to eugenics – a branch of race science popularised by Galton and his protégé Karl Pearson, who both held chairs at UCL. Having buildings named after them made it seem that UCL condoned their theories and created “an unwelcoming environment for students and staff who identify as BAME, disabled or come from a low-income background”, the report found. The university is also set to decolonise its curricula, fund scholarships to study race and racism and publish a “meaningful and effective apology” to acknowledge the harm and hurt caused by its apparent complicity in eugenics. Despite the soul-searching nature of the report, several of those behind it felt the recommendations did not go far enough, calling for signage to explain the renaming, while others wanted further investigation into a eugenics conference held at UCL – without its knowledge – in 2017.

Not receiving enough credit for one’s work is a familiar feeling for many in higher education, but a recent job advertisement took the concept to the nth degree. The oncologist and bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel penned a listing on the interdisciplinary network H-Net looking for a part-time “teaching fellow” to plan and teach an undergraduate course about Benjamin Franklin at the University of Pennsylvania. Craig Gallagher, an adjunct instructor of history at New England College, drew attention to the advert on Twitter, saying that Professor Emanuel was essentially looking for someone to “do literally all the work of the class he is going to teach on Benjamin Franklin, despite having no historical training himself”. Fellow historians soon followed suit on the social media platform, wondering why a bioethicist was teaching a history class in the first place and pointing out that the advert seemed to be perpetuating the exploitation of early career scholars and the humanities in general. The posting was soon removed and replaced with a more detailed description of the role.

You know that an issue has real potential to offend when students choose it as a theme for a party. Authorities at the State University of New York Albany were not impressed by the decision to organise a “coronavirus-themed” party, the Instagram invitation to which featured a bucket of beer, a student wearing a medical mask and the tagline “Coronavirus isn’t gonna stop anyone from partying”. While the student shindig took place off-campus and was not sanctioned by Albany, the university has said that it will investigate the event, which it called “distasteful and hurtful”, according to CNN. The university’s Asian American Society later waded in, claiming the “illegal student group” should be held to account for the “disrespectful slogan” that amounted to a “coronavirus hate crime”.

As if the modern job market, with its unpaid internships and zero-hours contracts, wasn’t already grim enough for many graduates, a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that about one in five English students – approximately 70,000 a year – makes a net financial loss from attending university. The findings prompted much hand-wringing from onlookers citing the “value for money” of certain degrees, but Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: “It is vital to recognise that education is about much more than just financial benefit. Focusing on future income following university ignores the wider benefits that education brings to individuals and to society.” The report found that the average net lifetime return of an undergraduate degree is £130,000 for men and £100,000 for women.



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