The week in higher education – 18 May 2017

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

May 18, 2017
Cartoon Robert Gordon University

Two Robert Gordon University students who left a pineapple in an art exhibition only to find it put on display in a glass case went viral with their amused reaction and made headlines around the world. Ruairi Gray and Lloyd Jack left the pineapple in an exhibition at the university as a joke, returning to discover that it had been enshrined in a display case, where it remained for several days. Natalie Kerr, a cultural assistant for the festival who organised the display, had a cast-iron alibi, according to the Independent: “she said she wasn’t the one who included the fruit as an artwork because she is allergic to pineapple.” Mr Jack is a business student, but he offered a convincingly arty, if ironic, explanation of the pineapple’s meaning to The New York Times on 11 May. “The pineapple symbolises the UK leaving the EU, standing alone, attempting to survive, cut off from the outside world,” he said.

The Labour Party’s manifesto for the general election, leaked in its draft form on 11 May, will pledge to abolish tuition fees in England, in the apparently unlikely event of the party’s returning to power. “There is a real fear that students are being priced out of university education. Last year saw the steepest fall in university applications for 30 years,” said the draft manifesto, more apocalyptic than accurate in its description of the 5 per cent UK-wide fall in the number of applications for courses starting in autumn 2017. The Institute for Fiscal Studies put the annual cost of the policy, alongside reintroducing maintenance grants, at £8 billion. The Sun found an entirely impartial voice to analyse the plans on 13 May – Conservative Party supporter Toby Young, who “revealed that Labour’s education plans would drag Britain back to the 1970s when ‘standards were low, discipline was poor and less than five per cent of children went to university’”. Whether it was Mr Young or The Sun speaking in the language of a Conservative Party press release was not quite clear.

Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s education secretary, was previously notable for a Senate confirmation hearing appearance in which she displayed so little knowledge of education policy that she was ridiculed on Saturday Night Live. Now she has earned herself more unfavourable publicity, being booed at a historically black university where was picking up an honorary doctorate. Her commencement speech at Bethune-Cookman University in Florida “was drowned out by jeers upon taking the podium and at numerous points throughout her speech”, while roughly half the 380 graduates present turned their backs on her, The Guardian reported on 10 May. The charter school advocate had come under fire in February for describing historically black colleges and universities as “real pioneers when it comes to school choice”. “Her comments were roundly condemned for ignoring the history of HBCUs, which were founded during the era of racial segregation” when African Americans were barred from many universities, The Guardian noted.

There was a very different reception for Mr Trump when he spoke at the commencement ceremony at the evangelical Christian Liberty University. The “often profane New Yorker who emerged last year as an unlikely champion for evangelical Christians” was “rewarded with some sanctuary by the conservative faithful” when he addressed a crowd of 50,000 at the university’s “football” stadium, The New York Times reported on 13 May. Mr Trump’s version of homespun wisdom (possibly spun in China rather than at home) ran: “There will be times in your life you’ll want to quit, you’ll want to go home, you’ll want to go home to, perhaps, to that wonderful mother that’s sitting back there watching you and say, ‘Mom, I can’t do it.’ Just never quit.” Perhaps that was Mr Trump’s commentary on his own efforts to overcome his difficulties with the FBI and its investigation into Russian interference in the presidential election; all the same, the suggestion to students that a “wonderful mother” has had any influence at all on his worldview jars a little.

Universities minister Jo Johnson’s advice to the UK sector to avoid the risk of “deterring students” from coming to the country by “endlessly saying that we’re closed for business”, which he offered in a recent interview with Times Higher Education, brought an angry reaction from one vice-chancellor. Craig Mahoney, principal of the University of the West of Scotland, delivered a response in an interview with Scotland’s Herald on 15 May. “The rhetoric that the UK is closed for business, comes directly from rejected international recruits who have been unable to secure a Tier 4 visa to study in any one of the outstanding universities across the UK…It is not coming from university leaders, who are extremely encouraging about studying in the UK,” he said. It remains to be seen whether Mr Johnson remains in the universities job post-election to receive more feedback – more likely the comments were his Parthian shot to vice-chancellors.

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