The week in higher education – 17 August 2017

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

August 17, 2017
The week in HE illustration (17 August 2017)

One of the big criticisms of the UK’s rush to embrace “accelerated degrees” delivered intensively over a shorter timeframe is that nowhere else has done so. A precedent from an unlikely sector has, however, emerged after it was revealed that Star Wars heroine Princess Leia received her PhD at the age of 19. University of Glasgow academic Becca Harrison stumbled across the obscure fact, which was mentioned by Star Wars creator George Lucas in a director’s commentary to A New Hope in 2004, the Washington Post reported on 6 August. Assuming Princess Leia enrolled at university some time in her early teens, this would still mean that she was able to complete her undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees within just six years – a remarkable feat that even the most ardent fans of intensive degrees might think rather too condensed. As Star Wars devotees pointed out, Princess Leia was also a senator and an intergalactic rebel leader by the age of 19 – a display of multitasking that suggests PhDs aren’t quite as time-consuming in galaxies far, far away.

A syllabus offering students the chance to “self-grade” has been pulled after a media backlash, Inside Higher Ed reported on 9 August. The University of Georgia confirmed that it had removed the “stress reduction” part of a programme taught by business professor Rick Wilson, which allowed students to change their results if they felt “unduly stressed”. But the decision had been taken because the format lacked academic rigour, rather than because of any criticism it had received, the institution said. Under the previous policy, Professor Wilson told students who were stressed about their results that they could email their instructor “indicating what grade you think is appropriate, and it will be so changed”. The syllabus was described by CSC Media Group, a right-wing news outlet, as “a stunning but not-too-surprising example of the deteriorating quality of education and discipline in America’s universities”.

A Conservative MP has quit his role on the University of Bath’s court in protest at the vice-chancellor’s pay, the BBC News website reported on 11 August. Andrew Murrison, MP for South West Wiltshire, said vice-chancellors “are looking increasingly like a self-serving cartel” and that he “cannot in all conscience continue to be associated with the governance of Bath University, in however titular a capacity, while current practice remains unchallenged”. Lord Adonis, the former education minister, chalked up the episode as a victory in his sudden, vociferous campaign over vice-chancellors’ pay in general and that of Bath vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell in particular (£451,000 at most recent tally). Meanwhile the Higher Education Funding Council for England has been feeling the heat in the Bath Chronicle over its role in the affair. “What use are they? Not much I suspect. Are they part of the ‘establishment’?” wondered an Adonis-fuelled Ken Cooke of Chaucer Road, Bath. 

What is it that drives forward Lord Adonis in his assault on vice-chancellors’ pay, and the ability of the proposed Office for Students to address his concerns? Responding to the appointment of former Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge as chief executive of the OfS, the former minister said that this was “as good as appointing all 130 v-cs as their own regulator”. Hopefully sour grapes have nothing to do with Lord Adonis’s campaign, but the Guido Fawkes website did claim on 11 August that he had gone for the job of chair of the OfS, and didn’t get it – so maybe this campaign will continue for a little while yet.

After the state of Virginia changed its laws to authorise the testing of self-driving vehicles on its roads, one reporter scented a story after seeing what appeared to be an autonomous vehicle with no-one sitting in its seats. NBC’s Adam Tuss gave chase when he spotted the van but, when he looked a little closer through the window, he saw a man in the driver’s seat, dressed as a car seat, “wearing a beige and black costume that covered his entire torso”, as the station’s website put it on 7 August. Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute said that the van and driver were part of a study on driverless vehicles. “The driver's seating area is configured to make the driver less visible within the vehicle, while still allowing him or her the ability to safely monitor and respond to surroundings,” the institute said in a statement on the research, relating to the responses of other road users to driverless cars – in this case bafflement and headlines around the world.

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