The week in higher education – 17 September 2015

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the national press

September 17, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (17 September 2015)

A team of researchers in the US has been awarded a $3.9 million (£2.5 million) grant to find out what makes people “morally exceptional”, The Independent reported on 8 September. “The Beacon Project” at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, which will last for three years, will try to get to the essence of what makes people good by looking at “moral superstars” in the public eye as well as those who are less well known. William F. Fleeson, professor of psychology at Wake Forest, insisted that the study was not trying to push any kind of “agenda” and maintained that researchers on the team included “liberals, conservatives, Christians and non-Christians”, the newspaper reported.

A reminder of Vince Cable’s pitched battles in the coalition government with home secretary Theresa May over international students came this week with the release of his memoir After The Storm. The former business secretary details how the Home Office saw India and China “primarily in terms of hundreds of millions of potential illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers” despite the rest of the government promoting “academic visits and the export industry of overseas students”. He confirms that chancellor George Osborne was “generally an ally in these scraps” but neither he nor David Cameron “was ever willing to face down” Ms May. The book comes as evidence emerges that the division is as fraught as ever, even with just the Tories in power. The Times reported on 11 September that Ms May was still under pressure on the issue of whether to take international students out of the net migration count, with Mr Osborne, foreign secretary Philip Hammond and business secretary Sajid Javid all supporting such a move.

Sports matches between neighbouring UK universities provoke bitter rivalries, but maybe not quite to the level seen in the US. A prime example was provided when the marching band director of Kansas State University was suspended last week over a formation used during the half time of an American football game. According to Inside Higher Ed, the formation – at a match against the University of South Dakota – had meant to portray the starship Enterprise from Star Trek destroying the mascot of Kansas State’s main rival, the University of Kansas Jayhawk. But many of those watching the game and commenting on social media thought that the Enterprise resembled male genitalia, with the formation ending up looking like a sex act. In a statement, the band director Frank Tracz said that there had been absolutely no intention to show anything other than “the Enterprise and the Jayhawk in battle”. But Kansas State still suspended him, saying that the destruction of the Jayhawk fell short of “sportsmanship”. Dr Tracz does appear to have the support of Captain Kirk, however. William Shatner, who played Kirk in the original TV series, tweeted that the sanctions were a “travesty” and the leaders of the athletics conference should “get their eyes checked”.

The University of Salford has launched a mobile phone app to help students in clearing to find “the course of their dreams” with a functionality similar to Tinder, the popular dating app. The Match Made in Salford app allows prospective students to swipe left or right when they are provided with personalised course recommendations based on their grades achieved, preferred subject areas and careers of interest. John McCarthy, director of marketing and student recruitment at Salford, said that because clearing was a stressful time, “we felt it was important to make the experience reassuring and enjoyable – less about panic buying and more about helping people make the right choices”. Not that anyone has ever made a rash decision on Tinder, of course.

Access to wi-fi is now near the top of the list of things students expect on arriving at university. But a row over its use has engulfed the University of Melbourne’s Ormond College after the institution blocked access to legal porn sites, The Age reported on 12 September. College master Rufus Black said that allowing such access would amount to condoning the objectification of women. But students paying A$200 (£92) a semester for wi-fi have argued that provided that sites are legal it should be their decision whether to access them. “I would personally prefer to see colleges tackling issues around respect for women’s bodies and consent through educational programmes and ensuring students receive comprehensive information on consent as part of their college orientation,” said Rachel Withers, president of Melbourne’s student union.

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