The week in higher education – 10 March 2016

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

March 10, 2016
The week in higher education cartoon (10 March 2016)

“One in four billionaires dropped out of university or didn’t receive any higher education at all, a study has revealed.” So the Daily Mirror reported on 2 March, citing GoCompare’s Billionaire League. “While Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may be the most famous living college dropouts, they are not alone,” it said. “Indian business tycoon Gautam Adani, who Forbes estimates to be worth nearly $4 billion (£2.83 billion), quit Gujarat University in his second year.” The converse interpretation of the “study”, that three in four billionaires did complete higher education, was curiously absent from the Mirror article.

The normally media-shy Jo Johnson appears to be coming out of his shell to back the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, as his brother Boris noisily leads the Brexit brigade into battle. The universities and science minister submitted himself to a softball interview by The Times published on 5 March, nominally about the referendum, in which we learned that the Johnsons are keenly competitive over tennis. “Boris has an advantage at the moment because he has a tennis court,” Mr Johnson said. “He’s moved off the wooden racket and the funny thing is he’s an unbelievably fast runner.” The Times had the younger Johnson scrambling only when it asked if he might compete for the Conservative leadership against his brother. The prospect of three more months of EU referendum coverage is one thing – but it seems that this will also include a five-set marathon of Johnson family minutiae.

The annual grant letter from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills landed on the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s doormat on 4 March. The letter’s signatories, Sajid Javid, the business secretary, and Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, said that they wanted Hefce to “take responsibility for delivering” the teaching excellence framework “in Year 2”, meaning 2018-19. Ministers also want Hefce to ensure that a new quality assurance regime “maintains the broader assurances that are needed to support Home Office visa activity, act as a potential gateway into TEF, and maintain the UK HE global reputation, including by maintaining compatibility with our obligations under the Bologna process. We also support your ongoing work to ensure that assurance mechanisms for England fit smoothly within a whole-UK approach.” That seemed to be a carefully worded expression of ministerial concern about Hefce’s plans to go full steam ahead on contracting out quality assurance without waiting for a possible higher education bill.

Plenty of scientists combine their studies with religious faith – but not normally in their papers. The blog Retraction Watch reported that a paper about the biomechanics of human hands published last month in the peer-reviewed, open-access online journal Plos One attracted criticism from readers. The paper made several references to “the Creator”, stating: “In conclusion, our study can improve the understanding of the human hand and confirm that the mechanical architecture is the proper design by the Creator for dexterous performance of numerous functions following the evolutionary remodeling of the ancestral hand for millions of years.” The paper was subsequently retracted by the journal, Retraction Watch reported on 3 March. But it noted that someone claiming to be one of the authors had posted underneath the Plos One article saying: “Our study has no relationship with creationism. English is not our native language.” Instead of “Creator”, it seems that they meant “Nature”.

Soas, University of London announced on 3 March that Paul Webley, its former director, had died at the age of 62. Professor Webley, who stepped down as director last year as he battled cancer, was an economic psychologist by training. He spent 26 years at the University of Exeter, including a spell as deputy vice-chancellor between 2003 and 2006, before taking over at Soas. Baroness Amos, current Soas director, said Professor Webley “made a tremendous contribution to both Soas and the wider academic community – as an inspired leader of our renowned specialist institution, as an eminent economic psychologist, as a member and chair of many influential bodies in higher education and as an unstinting champion of specialised research and of freedom of speech”.

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