The week in higher education – 17 November 2016

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

November 17, 2016
The week in higher education cartoon (17 November 2016)

University Challenge host Jeremy Paxman says he is “baffled” as to why students at the University of Reading have voted to boycott the programme over comments he made about a knitted doll. The Guardian reported that Reading’s students’ union voted 120 to 105 in favour of snubbing the quiz show in relation to “misogyny and sexism” it is claimed the university’s team experienced during filming for a previous series. The students have not revealed the exact nature of their complaint, but Mr Paxman says he thinks it was light-hearted comments he made about whether the team took their mascot – a knitted Paxman doll – to bed with them. "Though no complaint was made at the time, this, apparently, is what has upset them," the presenter said. Niall Hamilton, Reading students’ union’s education officer, claimed the contestants' concerns had not been properly addressed at the time, blogging that the show's producers pledged to inform Paxman he had caused offence but "did not issue a formal apology and they did not produce any consolation". Despite the bizarre incident, the university itself says it will still send a team to the show because the best way of “encouraging women to take part is fronting up and entering a team, not avoiding the programme”.

Perhaps the best place for the Paxman doll is as a comforter for the thousands of students upset by Donald Trump’s election as the next president of the US. It certainly wouldn’t be the strangest object being used to help those distraught at the result, with Play-Doh and therapy dogs also being employed, according to reports. One Yale University academic even showed some leniency on exams, emailing students on election night to tell them that an imminent mid-term test would be optional after receiving requests to postpone from some students who were in “fear, rightly or wrongly, for their own families”, the Daily Mail reported.

The outpouring of campus grief in the wake of Trump’s victory has been given short shrift by former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, a key Trump ally who is being tipped to serve in his cabinet. “The reality is they're a bunch of spoiled crybabies,” Mr Giuliani told US morning news show Fox & Friends, before qualifying that he didn’t think most students were crying as there had been an upturn in conservatism in the country’s universities. However, he added that the crying students were the ones who had been “more influenced by the professors” who, he said, were the “real left-wing loonies”. With Mr Giuliani being tipped to be the country’s new attorney general – where he may hold sway on all sorts of HE-related interpretations of the law – such comments are unlikely to allay the fears of academics that the Trump presidency will be bad news for higher education.

“BOOZY Cambridge University students were…slammed for allegedly hosting a fancy-dress initiation stunt outside a church on Remembrance Sunday,” The Sun reported on 14 November. “A group of booze covered male students – including one who looked like he had vomit on his arm – were even confronted by a medal-wearing veteran,” said the newspaper, attributing the original report on the incident to “student rag” The Tab. The Sun described the group in question, the Kangaroos, as a drinking society, with the initiation involving hopping around like said marsupials. A member of the group of future leaders of the nation said that it was not a drinking society, and that “once it was pointed out to us by a member of our college that our initiations were being held at an inappropriate time, we decided to rearrange for another day”.

Personal finance guru Martin Lewis has opened up another front with the government in his war over improving student support after criticising a minister’s response to his calls for it to be made clear that parents should make up any short fall in living costs. Mr Lewis, founder of the website, wrote to Jo Johnson, the UK’s universities minister, asking for the Student Loans Company to emphasise in letters that if students’ entitlement to loans was curtailed because of parental income, then parents would be expected to make up the shortfall. However, he said he was “very disappointed” after Mr Johnson knocked back his proposal. Mr Lewis is already not the government’s biggest fan over its decision to freeze student loan repayment thresholds, so the exchange is unlikely to be the last clash on the matter.

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