The week in higher education – 20 August 2015

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

August 20, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (20 August 2015)

Labour Party leadership favourite Jeremy Corbyn used to eat cold baked beans for dinner, his academic ex-wife has revealed. Jane Chapman, now a professor of communications at the University of Lincoln, who split from Corbyn in 1979 after five years of marriage, described the Islington North MP as “a genuinely nice guy” and supported his bid to lead Labour, the Daily Mail reported on 17 August.  But he never took her out for a meal while they were married and prioritised politics “to the exclusion of other kinds of human activities”, according to Professor Chapman, who said that she wanted a “different work-life balance”. Corbyn would sometimes “grab a can of beans and eat straight from the can” as he couldn’t be bothered to make a meal, she said. While that image might revolt Mail readers, many students accustomed to such culinary short cuts might actually find the leftwinger’s cuisine choices reassuringly familiar as they consider who to choose in the Labour ballot.

Just as the release of A-level results is inevitably followed by the photographs of celebrating teenage girls in the mainstream press, the widening of the gender gap in university admissions was also depressingly predictable. By the end of 17 August, 28,510 more 18-year-old women from the UK had gained university places via Ucas than men. Speaking to The Independent on 13 August, Mary Curnock Cook, the admissions service’s chief executive, said that the gap was “not going to be a good thing” in the long term. As had been expected after the lifting of the undergraduate number caps, clearing this year was busier than usual, with a 6 per cent increase so far in the number of students being placed using this route. News, page 6

August can notoriously be silly season for journalists, but arguably the research approach of one scholar suggests that it could also be the same for academics. Will Brooker, professor of film and cultural studies at Kingston University, is researching a monograph on David Bowie by living like the legendary rock star for a year. Although his research method luckily won’t stretch to taking drugs to the point of self-destruction, Professor Brooker has adopted Bowie’s hairstyle and make-up, experimented with sleep deprivation and even spent a few days sampling Bowie’s dubious diet of raw red peppers and milk. But although he “has really got into it over the summer”, Professor Brooker acknowledged that “other responsibilities will have to take priority” once the teaching term begins. Students will be able to report in October whether the immersive research method has led to permanent ch-ch-ch Changes in the academic or whether it all was just a Moonage Daydream.

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has effectively been told to “put up or shut up” over her “misleading” claims that internet use can damage the brain, The Daily Telegraph reported on 13 August. In a blunt opinion piece in the British Medical Journal, fellow neuroscientists Dorothy Bishop and Vaughan Bell, from the University of Oxford and University College London respectively, said Baroness Greenfield’s repeated assertions that online interaction may trigger autism has “no basis in scientific evidence”, the paper said. While Greenfield made the headline-grabbing comments in interviews, appearances and a recent book, she had ignored “repeated calls for her to publish these claims in the peer reviewed scientific literature, where clinical researchers can check how well they are supported by evidence”, they wrote. Greenfield, a senior research fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford, said that she was too busy to respond to the comments, but will have further infuriated her critics by adding that “you can only accuse someone of scaremongering when the scare has proved to be groundless”.

Cats are better than dogs, it’s official. That is the conclusion that could be drawn from research by an international team who analysed 2,000 ancient fossils and found that cats played a key role in the dramatic decline in the number of dog species in North America, The Independent reported on 14 August. According to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the arrival of cats in North America from Asia about 20 million years ago sparked a long-term decline in the number of wild dog species. Lead author Daniele Silvestro, of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, said that the decline was possibly due to cats’ retractable claws making them much better hunters in ambush situations.

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