The week in higher education – 1 October 2015

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

October 1, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (1 October 2015)

Probably one of the biggest worries over the government’s Prevent strategy was that it might lead to some ridiculous situation such as a student being accused of terrorism for sitting in the library reading a book about it. So maybe it should not come as a massive surprise that counter-terrorism student Mohammed Umar Farooq was questioned about his attitudes to terrorism after sitting in the library reading a book about terrorism. The postgraduate was studying a textbook entitled Terrorism Studies in Staffordshire University’s library when he was questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State and al-Qaeda, The Guardian reported. He told the paper that he had been “looking over his shoulder” ever since, and chose not to return to the course. After investigating the case, Staffordshire apologised, saying that it was responding to Prevent's “very broad duty…to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

The importance of evidence-based policy informed by academics is often the mantra you hear from governments when it comes to science, especially medicine and health, but such an approach has not always been so popular in other fields (see Michael Gove v “the Blob”, for instance). However, in an apparent bid to give his economic policies some credence, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s new leader, has assembled a panel of leading academic lights who have been critical of the West’s approach to deficit reduction. They include Nobel prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, the author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and Danny Blanchflower, a former Bank of England monetary policy committee member. Robert Peston, the BBC’s economics editor, suggested that not since Margaret Thatcher – whose economic policies were based on the thinking of free marketeers such as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek – had a UK politician sought such “intellectual ballast” for their approach. Was this an oblique reference to Piketty’s weighty tome?

Meanwhile, the link between academics and policy on science became a little fraught this week after Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer at the Department of Health, admitted that she raised concerns to the editor of journal The Lancet about a paper in Nature that was about to be published suggesting that Alzheimer’s could be transmitted between people. It followed an article in The Independent on 24 September that questioned whether Dame Sally was trying to undermine the research after revealing her as an unnamed government source quoted by Lancet editor Richard Horton as having contacted him on the weekend before the paper was made public. Dame Sally insisted that she had simply raised “concerns about possible misreporting of health issues that might cause public alarm” rather than about the research itself after a “chance meeting” with Dr Horton at an airport.

A £36,500-a-year private medical school in the North West run by a publicly funded university has finally launched after a year’s delay: but it cannot accept UK students. The University of Central Lancashire’s five-year medicine course will welcome 38 students in its initial intake this autumn, but all are from overseas because the institution is unable to take anyone from the UK owing to restrictions on government-funded places to study the subject, BBC News online reported. Deborah Streatfield, founder of social mobility charity MyBigCareer, said that the course would do “absolutely nothing to help young students from disadvantaged backgrounds who struggle to access medical courses”. But Cathy Jackson, head of Uclan’s medical school, denied that it was being “elitist” and said that it was “actively” looking at ways to allow UK students in even without the government increasing places for UK students to study medicine.

Most of the Star Wars saga is so far, far away from scientific reality that it would not seem a fertile hunting ground for actual research. But this hasn’t stopped students at the University of Leicester from using the theory of relativity to conclude that the films’ central characters – Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia – must actually be different ages despite their being (*spoiler alert!*) twins. The students looked at various interstellar journeys that the pair make in The Empire Strikes Back, and estimate that Luke’s long haul from a distant star system after learning the tricks of the Jedi trade from Yoda meant  that Leia will have aged more in comparison, The Daily Telegraph reported on 19 September. However, it is unlikely that such research will aid Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher when the now older actors reprise their roles in the much-hyped upcoming new instalment, The Force Awakens, due out in December.

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