The week in higher education – 12 March 2015

March 12, 2015
  • The vice-chancellor of the University of Bolton has written to all staff to reassure them of the value of Bolton’s “development programme”, which will involve all 700 employees being put up in a luxury hotel over a series of 20 awaydays. The meetings (total cost: £100,000) take place at Lake Windermere, where Bolton head George Holmes has a yacht moored (the university says that bears “no relevance” to the development programme). The costly scheme, revealed by Times Higher Education last week and subsequently picked up by national newspapers The Times and the Daily Mail, “has been such good value for money”, writes Professor Holmes in his email to staff that it “may well be repeated in future years”. The email – seen by THE – points out that The Times’ coverage suggests “an insider may be trying to damage the university”, but does not seem to allow for the possibility that more than one Bolton employee may have contacted THE with concerns about the institution’s spending.
  • Student leaders have been accused of running a “draconian nanny state” after issuing a ban on the downing of alcoholic drinks using the “strawpedo” method. More than 400 people have signed a petition against the move by Edinburgh University Students’ Association to outlaw the technique, in which a straw is inserted into a bottle to prevent the creation of a vacuum and make possible ultra-fast intoxication, Metro newspaper reported on 5 March. The union says it is “part of their ‘duty’ to prevent irresponsible drinking”, but the ban has clearly put it at odds with many students, who held a mass “strawpedo” protest at a union club night. “It’s basically a human rights violation,” tweeted one, adding: “What’s next, banning the downing of pints?!” At last glance, the Human Rights Act did not appear to have a section governing drinking games, but maybe that was an oversight.
  • Cats are big music fans if you play the right tune, research by academics has found. Felines generally ignored classical masterpieces, such as Bach’s Air on a G String, but they reacted positively when played high-pitched songs composed specifically for them, The Times reported on 5 March. One of the tracks, titled Cozmo’s Air, had a tempo of 1,380 beats per minute and used sliding frequencies that feature in cat vocalisations, according to the paper published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The song was created by the study’s lead author, Charles Snowdon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and apparently sounds a bit like those created by quirky Icelandic songstress Björk, the paper says.
  • The phrase “Yes, we can” has taken on a new meaning after a university launched a pee-powered toilet, The Guardian reported on 5 March. Students and staff at the University of the West of England in Bristol have been asked to use a working urinal to feed microbial fuel cell stacks that generate electricity to power indoor lights, the paper said. The prototype, which was created by UWE researchers and Oxfam, could be developed by aid agencies to bring light to toilets in disaster area refugee camps. UWE professor Ioannis Ieropoulos, who is leading the research, claimed that the project was as “green as it gets”, which could prompt another “black and blue or white and gold” debate, this time on the colour of urine. But whether the loo has a lasting trickle-down on wider society or is just a flash in the pan remains to be seen.
  • The University of the West of Scotland has defended its hiring procedures after the principal’s girlfriend landed a £500-a-day consultancy contract, the Herald reported on 8 March. Craig Mahoney’s partner, Helena Lim, was given the job – which relates to plans for a possible UWS campus in Berlin – without its being advertised publicly, the paper said. The university responded that the contract did not need to be tendered because of its low value, reported to be around £5,000. It added that the principal played “no part” in the hiring of Dr Lim, who was an assistant director of the Higher Education Academy when Professor Mahoney was chief executive. John Wilson, an MSP for Central Scotland, was among several politicians to call for more scrutiny of policies in place governing higher education recruitment.
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