The week in higher education - 13 November 2014

November 13, 2014
  • Research from University College London that suggested migrants from the European Union had made a net contribution to the UK of £20 billion over the course of a decade was never likely to go down well with the Daily Mail. And sure enough, on 6 November, the newspaper poured scorn on the report’s co-author, professor of economics Christian Dustmann. Beside a picture of him “sporting an earring”, the Mail ran a headline about his previous involvement with research that said only 13,000 migrants a year would come to the UK from Eastern Europe – when the eventual total between 2004 and 2009 exceeded 1 million. Despite noting that he has made clear that the estimate assumed labour markets like Germany’s were also open to migrants, there was an obvious implication that he was not to be trusted. Whether the paper would have taken the same approach to a researcher named Chris Smith, we will never know.
  • In the same week as an academic study suggested that sending sexually explicit “selfies” to would-be partners is a normal part of teenage courtship, we learned that Harvard undergraduates are upset that they were secretly photographed sitting (fully clothed) in lecture theatres. The Boston Globe reported on 5 November that 10 lecture theatres were automatically photographed every minute earlier this year so computers could calculate how many seats were filled. Peter Bol, Harvard’s vice-provost for advances in learning, said the attendance study was kept secret to avoid biasing results and did not identify individuals. But he ordered all images to be destroyed and aims to contact each one of the 2,000 students photographed. That was still not enough for some. One student described the study as “strikingly hypocritical” given the university’s adoption of an honour code requiring “academic work of integrity”.
  • A Swiss university has conjured up artificial “ghosts” so successfully that two participants in an experiment asked for it to be stopped part-way through. Researchers at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne allowed volunteers to control the movements of a robot arm with their finger, The Times reported on 7 November. The arm was placed behind them, touching their backs, and when its movements coincided with their own, all was well. When the back touching was out of sync with their movements, however, the volunteers felt as if they were being touched by a ghost. Two of the 12 participants were so freaked out that they asked for the experiment to be halted. The researchers said the experiment suggested that “feelings of presence” often interpreted as spirits, angels or demons were actually in the mind.
  • Harold Macmillan described the debates at the Oxford Union as the “last bastion of free speech in the Western world”. In 1933, it passed perhaps its most famous motion: “This House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country”, prompting Winston Churchill to describe the debate as “that abject, squalid, shameless avowal”. Fast-forward 81 years and the Union is still tackling the hot (and delicious) topics of the day: is it acceptable to serve Yorkshire puddings with chicken? The debate, the Daily Mail reported on 4 November, was prompted by research from pudding producers Aunt Bessie’s, which found that the English now eat more of the batters with chicken than they do with beef. There was no vote, so no victory could be claimed, but it is understood there was a “decidedly pro-chicken” mood in the chamber.
  • Meanwhile, another well-known University of Oxford institution has insisted it will not “pander to the hype” by changing its name. For years, Isis was best known as the reserve team representing the university in the annual Boat Race. But unfortunately in recent months the name has also come to be associated with the jihadist group marauding its way across Syria and Iraq. Despite this, The Daily Telegraph reported on 6 November that the Oxford rowing club is not planning to ditch the name. Jon Roycroft, the university’s director of sport, told the newspaper that he would be raising the subject at this month’s boat club committee meeting. “But I would seriously doubt that changing the name of the reserve boat would be considered,” he said.
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