Overseas briefing

April 24, 2008

India

Positive discrimination upheld

Plans for a controversial positive discrimination system to reduce the impact of India's caste system on higher education opportunities have been upheld by the country's Supreme Court. Around half of all places at Indian public universities henceforth will be allocated to members of specific lower castes. The groups that will benefit include those traditionally limited to work such as herding cattle, and the Dalit, the group once known as "untouchables". Hailed by some as evidence of increasingly progressive attitudes in Indian higher education, the initiatives have been criticised by other observers who argue that the moves will damage academic quality and do not reward students on their merits.

United States

University in free-speech row

A university has been criticised for ordering an academic to remove cartoons from his office door. The professor at Lake Superior State University in Michigan was instructed to remove cartoons on such topics as abortion and Islamic terrorism, including one depicting two veiled women looking at family photos accompanied by the caption: "They blow up so fast." The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit educational foundation devoted to defending "individual rights in higher education", including "freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty and sanctity of conscience", has said that other academics at the university were allowed to post items on their doors, possibly because they had a liberal or left-wing rather than Conservative or right-wing bent, the news website InsideHigherEd.com reported. The foundation's president, Robert L. Shibley, said: "We really think this is a case that's amenable to public pressure, because the double standard here is so transparent."

Australia

Jobs boom hits HE enrolment

The resources boom that is driving high employment and high wages for relatively unskilled jobs in Australia has led to 4,000 university places going unfilled. Eight universities have handed back or deferred government funding worth A$34 million (£16 million) in the last three years, including cash for 1,710 student places in 2008 alone. Richard James, professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, told The Australian newspaper that universities need more flexibility to respond to demand. Paul Greenfield, vice-chancellor at the University of Queensland, added that it was a "substantial concern" that, despite a rising population, the number of 18-year-olds going into higher education in Australia is falling.

Gaza

Israel fuel cuts shut universities

In Palestine, the Gaza Strip's four main universities were shut down for several days last week as a result of critical fuel shortages. The action, which affected 45,000 students, was taken after attendance rates fell by 60 per cent, Associated Press reported. Ali al Najjar, an official at Azhar University, described the closures as a "genuine crisis". The fuel shortages in Gaza, which are the result of a reduction in supply from Israel, have also driven up the cost of public transport. A trip from the southern town of Rafah to Gaza City, where the universities are located, used to cost $1.70 (£0.86) and now costs up to $4. Most Gaza residents live on less than $2 a day.

United States

Academic stops lecture over SMS

A philosophy professor who walked out of a lecture when he saw a student sending a text message has provoked debate about discipline in US higher education. Laurence Thomas warned students at Syracuse University in New York State that he would not tolerate such behaviour, and then followed through on his threat to cancel the lecture, InsideHigherEd.com reported. In an e-mail to students, he said that as a black academic, he had been particularly disappointed that two recent instances of disrespect were by ethnic minority students. "Confronting students directly and asking them to stop has virtually no effect. I walk out to underscore the importance of what this means to me," he said. However, Gerald Amada, an expert in classroom behaviour, told InsideHigherEd.com: "There is something inherently wrong, from a moral standpoint, with collective punishment."

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