The week in higher education - 15 May 2014

May 15, 2014
  • Boasting about an honorary degree is one step up from bragging about a cycling proficiency badge, you might think. But Sean Combs, aka Puff Daddy, P Diddy or just Diddy, enthusiastically trumpeted his honorary degree from Howard University in Washington DC, where he also gave the commencement address to graduating students. The rapper and producer, who dropped out of Howard after two years on a business major, provided updates to his 9.7 million Twitter followers using the hashtag #DrCombs (clarifying the situation for anyone who thought he might henceforth be known as Dr Diddy). In his address, he told students that they were “magical creatures” capable of shaping the future, the Daily Mail reported on 11 May. He also referenced his own songs and concluded with the baffling statement: “At night I be flying. I believe I can fly. I am a unicorn. You are a unicorn. We are unicorns.”
  • Last week’s Week in HE detailed the row over president of the Oxford Union Benjamin Sullivan’s membership of a college drinking society. To add to his woes, Mr Sullivan was arrested on suspicion of rape and attempted rape on 7 May and later released on bail. And now the University of Oxford’s societies have come under “renewed scrutiny”, The Times said on 10 May. Among examples highlighted by the paper were the invitation-only Piers Gaveston Society, which, said one former member, “is like the Bullingdon, but with a s***load of drugs”, and the Millers, a men-only society whose members are chosen for their “sporting prowess and general laddishness”. One member cheerfully noted how a first-year student last year “fell down some stairs and was hospitalised with concussion and a minor brain haemorrhage”.
  • Edinburgh Napier University students will face interview panels that include dogs. The university “will have dogs sitting in when conducting interviews for its veterinary school, which is hoped to both relax nervous students and see how comfortable they are around animals”, reported the Metro on 11 May. “The education system is clearly starting to see the benefits of canine interaction,” said the newspaper, noting that the University of Aberdeen introduced a roomful of puppies last year to help its students to combat exam stress. Efficiencies and outsourcing are all the rage in higher education, but putting non-humans in frontline admissions and student services roles is surely a step too far. Mind you, any dog working for biscuits and tummy tickles may attract envious looks from academic colleagues on zero-hours contracts.
  • Remarks by Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of Ucas, at the International Baccalaureate Schools and Colleges Association conference in London were reported on the front page of the Daily Telegraph on 13 May. She discussed how she did not go to university until her forties, adding that school leavers often fail to choose the right course. “I do sometimes think that higher education is wasted on the young,” she said. Ms Curnock Cook also discussed “sleepwalkers” – more affluent pupils who start a degree at 18 because “their parents probably went to university and it’s never been a real question for them about whether they should”. It’s lucky student numbers have bounced back – some potential young applicants might misinterpret Ms Curnock Cook’s words and decide not to “waste” their £9,000 a year.
  • Colin Pillinger, the planetary scientist best known for his attempt to land a probe on Mars, has died aged 70. Professor Pillinger, founder of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute at The Open University, died after suffering a brain haemorrhage at his home in Cambridge. He led the 2003 Beagle 2 project, a probe built to search for life on Mars but that vanished before the landing took place. “His vision of space exploration and his dedication to it inspired the nation,” said David Willetts, the universities and science minister. The BBC News website noted on 8 May that Professor Pillinger had once recounted how, in The Open University car park, he beat a lorry to a parking space and feared being “thumped” as he saw the driver walk towards him. The professor said: “He stuffed this huge paw through the window and said: ‘You’re the man who launched Beagle 2, aren’t you? I want to shake your hand, mate.’ And that to me says everything. There’s nobody in the UK I didn’t reach.”
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