The week in higher education - 12 June 2014

June 12, 2014
  • A student philosophy society named after Friedrich Nietzsche has been barred from meeting at University College London after it was branded “fascist”, news website The Daily Beast reported. The Nietzsche Club was added to the list of proscribed organisations by UCL’s student union in March after its “Equality is a False God” posters attracted controversy, the site said. “It is like starting a society to study Hitler,” said history student Timur Dautov, who proposed the ban, which has now been temporarily suspended on legal advice. Mr Dautov added that the group’s existence was akin to having “far-right fascists, sexists and homophobes trying to organise on campus”, saying it posed a “direct threat to the student body”. But Tom Slater, assistant editor of online magazine spiked who runs a campaign calling for open dialogue on campus, said that the group has joined “an increasingly absurd list of objects, people and pop songs” banned from universities on “tenuous grounds”.
  • Going to university is not all about getting a well-paid job, according to Universities UK president Sir Christopher Snowden. Speaking to The Independent on Sunday on 8 June at the start of Universities Week, Sir Christopher, who is vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey, criticised those who promoted higher education as a way of earning more money in future. “Trying to measure everything by the X number of pounds it’s going to get you, that’s not the right way of doing it,” he said. Or as A. N. Wilson put it in his Daily Telegraph piece on 4 June, “it seems so ludicrous to put a cash value on the experience” of university, which in his case was New College, Oxford. Strangely no mention was made of the student grants on offer for everybody in Mr Wilson and Sir Christopher’s university days – which makes it somewhat easier not to worry about how much you’ll earn later.
  • A third of university-trained nurses are rejected from the NHS because they cannot answer basic maths questions vital to dispensing drugs, The Sunday Times claimed on 8 June. Challenges that stumped trainees included how many 15mg tablets are required to make up 30mg. Nurses are well-trained and compassionate, but universities had to do more to equip them with maths skills, said Claire Murdoch, chief executive of Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust. Ieuan Ellis, vice-chairman of the Council of Deans of Health, which represents university faculties that teach nurses, denied that nurses were ill-prepared, saying that the data did not back up the claims.
  • Could a computer ever churn out a credible undergraduate essay on its own? Probably, yes, if you give techies a few more years, The Independent reported on 9 June, after a program known as a “chatbot” fooled many people into thinking that it was a 13-year-old boy. “Eugene Goostman” – a script written by a team in Russia – is said to be the first program to pass the “Turing Test”, which says that a computer could be understood to be thinking if it was able to persuade 30 per cent of humans that it was a real person. This claim was disputed by some commentators, and Eugene’s perplexing broken English suggests he won’t be much help to struggling students for a while. Asked how he felt about his achievement, he said: “I feel about beating the Turing Test in quite a convenient way – nothing original.” Not quite a 2:2 insight yet.
  • A bitter war of words between academics over the rights and wrongs of fracking – and more pertinently the independence of researchers in the field – reached a new notch this week after a letter to The Guardian calling for more government support for the industry was signed by 50 scientists. The letter, published on 5 June, argued that there were “undeniable economic, environmental and national security benefits” to shale gas being developed in northwest England. But the independence of the letter’s signatories was called into question by fellow academics. David Smythe, emeritus professor of geophysics at the University of Glasgow, said in his own letter to the newspaper on 10 June that of the 21 university departments to which the signatories belong, “at least 15 are in receipt of research funds from the oil industry. Unfortunately, the days of academic independence are over.”
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