The week in higher education – 21 April 2016

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

April 21, 2016
The week in higher education (21 April 2016)

What do you do if you get locked inside your university building after hours? Rope in some celebrities to set you free was the unusual answer for one hapless University of Brighton student trapped inside her department one evening, the Independent reported on 13 April. Thinking that she had a few minutes before the building would be shut after handing in an essay, Emily Rycroft popped to the lavatory, only to return and find the exit doors firmly locked. The philosophy, politics and ethics student contacted her mother, who in turn took to Twitter to plead with famous faces to help release her daughter. BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine and Jo Whiley retweeted the appeal, bringing it to the attention of Brighton’s security guards.

An unfortunate thief picked the wrong university to burgle and ended up being mobbed by a gang of students trained in kung fu, the Daily Mail reported on 14 April. The intruder was apparently spotted trying to break into the Institute of Physical Education at Xi’an, in north central China’s Shaanxi province, leading a group of martial arts students to give chase, the Mail said. Within a few minutes, word of the campus intruder had spread and about 1,000 students gathered. They took it in turns to beat him as he tried to flee the university before he was eventually rescued by police. The unlucky thief seemed to gain little sympathy from those on China’s social media site Weibo, where footage of the episode was posted. “Sports Institute? Seriously? Why on earth would someone steal at a place where everyone runs faster than him,” said one user.

Was it satire or just plain racism? Either way, a wall built around a Tulane University fraternity house with the words “Make America Great Again” has been dismantled after an uproar on campus, the Daily Mail reported on 14 April. As part of an annual tradition, the university’s chapter of the Kappa Alpha Order builds a sandbag wall around its off-campus home for its “Old South” formal ball, the paper reported. But this year, the political slogan of Donald Trump was written on the bags – a reference to the presidential hopeful’s plans for a wall separating the US and Mexico. While Kappa Alpha claimed that its intent was satirical, the provocative message was branded “xenophobic” and said to be mocking immigrant groups by some Latino students. The wall was later torn down by Tulane footballers, with the university noting that although it supported the “free exchange of ideas and opinions”, the local chapter’s actions “sparked a visceral reaction in the context of a very heated and divisive political season”.

Kappa Alpha was not the only US society to find itself in hot water this week. The graduate board president of a secretive all-male society at Harvard University has resigned after causing a worldwide furore by criticising the university’s push for such clubs to admit female members as part of a bid to cut sexual assaults on campus. In an email to the university paper, The Harvard Crimson, Charles Storey wrote that “forcing single gender organisations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease the potential for sexual misconduct”. But just a few days later, after a first apology failed to placate anger about his comments, Mr Storey stood down, saying in a statement he was “sad that I have disappointed so many people that I care about”.

Predictions that the internet will mean the end of campus-based higher education seemed to have died down of late, maybe because the massive open online course (Mooc) “revolution” has so far failed to translate to any discernible drop in the number of those applying to university. But that hasn’t stopped the University of Oxford’s official historian warning that the institution needs to buck up its online ideas if it doesn’t want to become “redundant”, The Guardian reported on 18 April. Laurence Brockliss’ new book on the history of the university – which has only been around since the 11th century – says that the spread of technology means that it is only a “matter of time” before universities such as Oxford are passed over for online courses. Maybe that will be true for some institutions, but just like classic vinyl is making a comeback, it is doubtful that the city of dreaming spires will ever lose its novelty appeal for Eton-educated children who believe they are destined to be prime minister.

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