The week in higher education – 15 December 2016

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the world's media

December 15, 2016
Week in HE illustration (15 December 2016)

“A University of Central Lancashire graduation ceremony ground to a halt as those attending became the latest people to take part in the ‘mannequin challenge’ craze,” reported the BBC website on 8 December. “The worldwide internet phenomenon involves people remaining frozen while being filmed by a moving camera.” The Uclan contribution was certainly impressive, with a hall full of mortar-boarded and be-gowned graduates managing to strike various icy poses. However, the trending stunt reaching higher education's shores is bound to prompt some witty comments. Indeed, cynics in government might suggest that if there is one type of institution very good at standing still while the world moves on around them, it is universities.

Chinese universities must be turned into Communist party “strongholds”, the country's president Xi Jinping has declared. “Higher education...must adhere to correct political orientation,” Mr Xi said in a high-profile speech to top party leaders and university chiefs that was delivered at a two-day congress on “ideological and political work” in Beijing, The Guardian reported on 9 December. He added that teachers needed to be both “disseminators of advanced ideology” and “staunch supporters of [party] governance”. The move is about ensuring that students don’t get any funny ideas about democracy, liberalism and the rule of law, experts suggested. Maybe the amended Chinese university curriculum will prove to be ahead of the curve – those ideas are starting to go out of fashion with some in the West, too.

The University of Liverpool announced that it would give a former student an honorary degree, 46 years after it expelled him for protesting against apartheid in a six-week sit in. “Pete Cresswell was forced to leave Liverpool University without graduating for protesting against its investments in apartheid-era South Africa,” reported the BBC website on 8 December. “The chancellor of the university at the time was Lord Salisbury, a known supporter of apartheid,” it added. Janet Beer, Liverpool vice-chancellor, said: “We in the university want to put this right.” Mr Cresswell found himself on an employment blacklist as a result and worked as a bus conductor and hospital porter initially after being expelled. Martin Luther King said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” – although sadly it had not bent that much before Lord Salisbury died in 1972.

Millionaire UK Independence Party funder, diamond-mine owner and scourge of elites Arron Banks took the anti-expert fight to a “fancy academic” on Twitter. After he suggested that the “Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration”, Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge, countered that “i think you all need to do a bit more reading in Roman history before telling us what caused the fall of Rome. Facts guys!” Mr Banks soldiered on with his argument (telling Professor Beard he was “not a fancy academic like you but that's what I remember from my history lesson”) by marshalling evidence from sources as diverse as his history O-level and Google. “Sorry folks, experts do know a lot...and, at the same time, they should be vulnerable and open to challenge, unseating, overturn and maybe ridicule,” wrote Professor Beard in her Don’s Life blog for the Times Literary Supplement on 7 December. “But to do that means more than just sounding off!”

“#@v@.#. R you.” So said Jo Johnson, the UK’s universities and science minister, in a tweet on 9 December. “Yeah i am,” replied one wag. At the time of writing, the message had gained 43 retweets – one of the minister’s more popular recent pronouncements. Had Mr Johnson sat on his phone and tweeted accidentally? The symmetry of the symbols and the “R you” suggest otherwise. Was it some kind of street slang that the Eton and Oxford-educated Mr Johnson is surprisingly “down with”? Was it some kind of code that offers the secrets to the universe? Or, more significantly, the secrets to success in the teaching excellence framework? As Times Higher Education went to press, Mr Johnson had offered no clues to solving the riddle of his enigmatic utterance.

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