The week in higher education – 10 September 2015

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

September 10, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (10 September 2015)

Good ideas are often sparked over a cup of coffee. But one academic has taken direct inspiration from his morning caffeine hit after developing a way to use leftover coffee grounds to store large amounts of energy, The Independent reported on 3 September. “We were sitting around drinking coffee and looked at the coffee grounds and I thought ‘I wonder if we can use this for methane storage?’” said Christian Kemp, who led a team that developed the carbon capture method at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. Under the pioneering method, used coffee granules are soaked in sodium hydroxide and heated at 900°C, providing a cheap source of clean energy that could power thousands of homes. If it catches on, it could be a good excuse for stocking staff rooms with “recyclable” fresh coffee rather than the instant blends found in many places.

Is Barbie to blame for the lack of female scientists? Despite efforts by toymaker Mattel to introduce lab-coat-wearing versions, physicist Dame Athene Donald thinks that the plastic figurine, and girls’ toys in general, have much to answer for, The Guardian reported on 4 September. Speaking before her inaugural address as the new president of the British Science Association, the professor for experimental physics at the University of Cambridge said that toys marketed at girls encouraged passive play, rather than stoking the imagination or encouraging more creative skills. “Girls’ toys are typically liable to lead to passivity – combing the hair of Barbie, for instance – not building, imagining or being creative with Lego or Meccano,” said Dame Athene. “If they have always just played with dolls – and dolls in a stereotypically female situation, such as worrying about hair or making tea – then how can they imagine themselves as engineers or chemists?” she said.

No gender bias in social science research funding, study finds

Meanwhile, the more fashionable scapegoat for sexism in science – Sir Tim Hunt – returned yet again to the headlines after it emerged that University College London had been underpaying female employees at its Qatari campus. Married women at the university’s Gulf outpost were paid a far lower housing allowance than married men, a practice “informed by Qatari norms”, according to leaked emails seen by The Times, it reported on 2 September. Several senior staff had raised concerns about the payment levels, with one branding them “morally and legally not acceptable” and another calling them a “major reputational risk for UCL”. A spokesman for UCL said it took steps to sort out the “anomaly” as soon as it came to light and staff pay was backdated. But The Thunderer was not placated, once again reminding readers of UCL’s treatment of Sir Tim, the Nobel laureate asked to resign for a self-deprecating joke about women scientists. “UCL’s hypocrisy seems to go on and on,” said one unnamed academic.

Howls of protest can often be heard when a 9am lecture features on university timetables. But sleepy students might actually have just cause to bemoan early starts after scientists found that lessons beginning before 11am may damage undergraduates’ health. A study by researchers at the University of Oxford, Harvard Medical School and the University of Nevada says that teachers should avoid early classes to “protect students from short sleep duration and chronic sleep deprivation, which are linked to poor learning and health problems”. Different circadian rhythms for 18-year-olds mean lectures should start at 11am to ensure that undergraduates are working during their optimum hours of alertness, says the research team. With science on its side, might the student lie-in soon become mandatory to head off legal action over early morning-related stress?

After several campaigns by the National Union of Students and others warning about a growing problem of sexual harassment of female students in UK universities, the government has asked Universities UK to lead a “task force” to look at the issue. The task force will, among other things, be expected to draw up a code of practice for universities “to support cultural change” following concerns that sexism and lad culture on campuses are rife. In an interview with The Sunday Times on 6 September, Sajid Javid, the business secretary, said that one of his daughters was about to consider where to go to university and he would “hate to think” she might be “reading on the news or watching television and thinking, ‘I don’t want to go to university because I might be assaulted’”.

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