The week in higher education - 14 August 2014

August 14, 2014
  • BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time became the unlikely subject of accusations over racist subtexts. The Daily Mail reported on 5 August that Ben Pitcher, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Westminster, told Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed last week that the horticultural advice programme was “saturated” with racial language that was feeding “nationalist and fascist fantasies”. Examples included debates about non-native species and advice about the purity of different soil types. Needless to say, the Mail was not impressed by the claims, gleefully suggesting that references to spades and exterminating blackflies might also be considered racist. The following day it carried an article by Gardeners’ Question Time regular Stefan Buczacki, who said that it was “profoundly sad that a senior academic can make such a claim on national radio and expect to be taken seriously”.
  • A Lego research institute staffed by three female scientists has sold out within hours of going on sale in the United States. The Times reported on 6 August that the toy was devised after seven-year-old Charlotte Benjamin wrote to the Danish company in January complaining that male Lego figures were much more numerous and had much more fun than female ones. The institute, designed by geochemist Ellen Kooijman, who works at the Swedish Museum of Natural History, features a palaeontologist, an astronomer and a chemist. Rumours that the figures have been snapped up by an unnamed university with the next research excellence framework in mind have been totally fabricated by this column.
  • Not content with his role in the sinking of a large cruise liner in which 32 people died, former Costa Concordia captain Francesco Schettino has done his bit to steer Italy’s largest university towards the rocks of ignominy. The Guardian reported on 6 August that the captain, who is on trial accused of manslaughter and abandoning his post before the evacuation of his vessel was complete, addressed a seminar at Sapienza University last month, allegedly as part of a master’s course in criminology and forensic science. Mr Schettino told the Italian press: “I was called in because I am an expert. I had to illustrate the management of panic control.” But the university was not impressed, referring seminar organiser Vincenzo Mastronardi, professor of forensic psychopathology, to its ethics committee for possible disciplinary action. In the week that university clearing begins in the UK, Mr Schettino could find his professed expertise in panic control on sinking ships in wide demand.
  • A proclivity for “geek speak” has contributed to making computer science graduates the least employable of all graduates, The Times reported on 6 August. The Higher Education Statistics Agency had published figures indicating that 13 per cent of 2013 computer science graduates were still unemployed six months after graduating, compared with only 0.2 per cent of medics. Adrian Davis, managing director of the Europe, Middle East and Africa region at the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium, told the paper that computer science graduates typically lacked the communication skills that would allow them to “put problems in a business context”.
  • The stabbing of two British medical students in the Malaysian part of Borneo last week was widely reported in the national press. Fourth-year Newcastle University students Neil Dalton and Aidan Brunger, both aged 22, were stabbed after an argument in a bar with a group of local men, who were reportedly high on crystal meth. The Daily Mail reported on 7 August that the students had been due to fly home the following day after a six-week work placement at a hospital in the city of Kuching. Police said that they had arrested four suspects who had admitted to the crime. The incident happened shortly after the students were warned by hospital staff to be on their guard in the area. Jane Calvert, dean of undergraduate studies at Newcastle, said: “For all our students going on an elective, all the risks are looked at and we are very careful not to let them go to places that are known to be of high risk.”
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