The week in higher education – 4 June 2015

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

June 4, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (4 June 2015)

In an era of £9,000 tuition fees, academics could be forgiven for feeling besieged by student demands. Now it seems that even the British Library is no refuge from them. The Times reported on 29 May that researchers are becoming incensed by the difficulty of finding a desk because of a glut of students drawn by the free, fast wi‑fi. Grace Ioppolo, a professor of English at the University of Reading, said that she had “yelled at a kid once because he was watching a movie [at] top volume in the rare books section”. Meanwhile, two students from the Royal Veterinary College insisted that they were there because “when we revise at uni we get panicked by the amount of work everyone says they have done”. Whatever happened to the good old days, when it was social suicide to admit to having done any work at all?

The University of Law has been sold to Global University Systems – the umbrella group for private colleges including the London School of Business and Finance and St Patrick’s College – “for an undisclosed sum”. The move – reported on 1 June by EducationInvestor – comes less than three years after it was bought by Montagu Private Equity for about £200 million, creating what was then the UK’s first for-profit university. Times Higher Education reported in 2013 how the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills rushed through the award of university title to the institution in 2012 to meet a deadline in the sale of the then charitable College of Law to Montagu. Aaron Etingen, founder and chief executive officer of GUS, said that after the acquisition there would be an “options review exercise” that “will deliver us a blueprint for one of the most comprehensive private universities in Europe”.

 The University of Oxford’s likely first female vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, described herself as “thrilled, enormously privileged and very fortunate” after learning of her nomination, The Times reported on 29 May. Professor Richardson, currently head of the University of St Andrews, said that she believed many more women will be involved in university management in future. The Irish academic’s nomination continues the steady diversification of the Russell Group’s leadership, whose 24 universities will soon have four female leaders – as opposed to just one at the University of Manchester a few years ago. She will also be the latest international leader in the group, with at least one other Irish national, two Americans, an Australian and a Belgian appointed in recent years.

 John Bohannon, an investigative journalist, revealed last week on the Io9 blog that numerous newspapers around the world – including the UK’s Daily Mail and Daily Express – had been duped into running a story that a scientific study had revealed that chocolate accelerates weight loss. Although the research was real – Mr Bohannon was part of the team that carried it out – it used such a small sample size that the chances of finding a supposedly statistically significant result were very high. Dr Bohannon’s institutional affiliation was also invented, and his paper was published in a journal that apparently carried out no peer review on it. “Journalists are becoming the de facto peer review system. And when we fail, the world is awash with junk science,” Dr Bohannon said. But, oh, what delicious junk it was.

 Hot on the heels of the recent controversy over allegedly sexist peer review comments comes another Twitter storm about advice given on the journal Science’s careers website to a postdoctoral researcher whose supervisor tries to look down her shirt despite otherwise seeming “like a nice guy”. In a recent “Ask Alice” column, Alice Huang, a senior faculty associate in biology at the California Institute of Technology, argued that although “leering” wasn’t “appropriate workplace behavior” – it was “human and up to a point…forgivable. As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can.” According to Retraction Watch, the posting was only up for a few hours before being retracted. The retraction note says that the article had “not undergone proper editorial review” and was “inconsistent with our extensive institutional efforts to promote the role of women in science”.

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