The week in higher education - 16 January 2014

January 16, 2014
  • Academics appear to have solved one of history’s oldest mysteries: how did Alexander the Great die? The Times reported on 13 January that toxicologists from the University of Birmingham and the West Midlands Poisons Unit helped scholars from New Zealand’s University of Otago to pinpoint what killed the conqueror of the Persian Empire at the age of 32. They found that Alexander’s reported symptoms before his death in Babylon in 323BC matched the effects of poisoning by white hellebore, a flowering plant used in small doses to purge demons from the body by inducing sneezing and vomiting. Their study argues that it could have been fermented, sweetened and given to an inebriated Alexander at a party, although they admit that they will never know if his poisoning was deliberate or accidental.
  • When mature students appear on University Challenge, quizmaster Jeremy Paxman makes little effort to hide his annoyance. He was at it again when Soas, University of London took on the University of Reading, noting that the former’s team had an average age of 34. Following Mr Paxman’s lead, the Daily Mail chimed in with some ageist comments of its own, particularly about 58-year-old Soas contestant Maeve Weber, whose “grey hair” and “knitted V‑neck jumper” made her “hardly the likeliest of university students”. It also found space on 8 January to print tweets from patronising viewers who referred to Ms Weber as the “sweetest old lady” and, wrongly, a “granny”. University Challenge fans could be forgiven some confusion about the existence of older undergraduates because the disproportionate number of youthful Oxbridge college teams on the show distorts the reality of an all-age student body.
  • Tintin creator Hergé preferred the colourful Captain Haddock to his “horrifyingly puritanical and depthless” boy reporter, an academic has told fans of the Belgian comic-book hero, The Times reported on 11 January. At a conference at University College London to mark the 85th anniversary of Tintin’s first appearance, Eric Langley, lecturer in Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at Royal Holloway, University of London, said Hergé developed an aversion to drawing his “bland” hero, but the swearing, hard-drinking Haddock allowed him to express a darker side. He added that the Tintin tales should be named after Captain Haddock, who is “one of the great life-affirming characters in literature, as important to Tintin as Falstaff is to the young Henry V”.
  • Free flights, laptops, gym memberships and cinema tickets are just some of the “deplorable” inducements used by universities to attract high-flying students, The Sunday Telegraph reported on 12 January. With institutions able to recruit unlimited numbers of students with A‑level grades of ABB or above, large amounts of cash and other sweeteners were on offer, the paper said. Newman University offered £10,000 over three years to all students with grades of BBB or better who made the institution their firm choice on application forms, while the University of Surrey promised a £3,000 cash award to first-year students with A*AA or equivalent, the report said. The “arms race” to lure students was condemned by Rachel Wenstone, vice-president (higher education) of the National Union of Students, who said that spending on “shallow marketing gimmicks” was “unacceptable” when so many students struggle financially. Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge was relaxed about the use of funds previously earmarked for hardship grants, saying they were “innovative ways of attracting students”.
  • Prince William is not the first grandson of a reigning monarch to study at the University of Cambridge. According to a letter from Lord Lexden published in The Daily Telegraph on 13 January, Queen Victoria’s grandson Prince Albert Victor – known as Prince Eddy – was in residence at Trinity College in the 1880s. But the Duke of Cambridge, who is taking a 10-week agriculture course, would do well not to emulate his distant ancestor, whose tutor once bemoaned that “he hardly knows the meaning of the words ‘to read’ ”, Lord Lexden reported. With the new dad expected to make a “gruelling” commute from Kensington Palace to Cambridge by rail each day, his student life will be nothing like the decadent one of his forebear.
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