The week in higher education - 21 August 2014

August 21, 2014
  • On A-level results day, Nick Pettigrew tweeted: “I got ABB in my A levels but needed another A to get a Uni place. So I say thank you for the music, for giving it to me.” As Mr Pettigrew describes himself in his Twitter bio as a writer for satirical news website The Daily Mash, it is likely that many of those reading the post would have twigged that he was making a joke based on Sweden’s best-known musical export. But not the University of Sussex, which tweeted him back: “Hi Nick – amazing results!…We’ve got a few spaces left in clearing.” Mr Pettigrew responded: “A level students: I’d avoid the University of Sussex. Not the brightest of sparks.” Then the University of East Anglia compounded English higher education’s shame by tweeting Mr Pettigrew: “These are good grades. Our lines are open now – 0300 300 7994.” The episode, reported by The Huffington Post website on 14 August, suggests that competition for students in a more marketised system has prompted universities to adopt a new tactic: abject desperation.
  • Paul Kohler, head of law at Soas, University of London, found himself in the national news after being badly beaten by intruders at his home in Wimbledon. Mr Kohler needs reconstructive surgery and may have suffered permanent damage to his sight, but is “determined to return to teaching at the start of the new term”, the Daily Mail reported on 18 August. Four masked men forced their way inside his £2 million house, shouting, “Where’s the money?”, the newspaper reported. The Daily Telegraph said on 14 August that police were investigating whether the attack was “linked” to a cabaret bar that Mr Kohler co-owns, the Cellar Door in central London.
  • A student accused of trying to smuggle cash in her knickers to fund jihadist fighters in Syria has been cleared of funding terrorism after a trial at the Old Bailey. Nawal Msaad, , of Holloway, north London, was studying human resources management at London Metropolitan University when she was arrested at Heathrow in January carrying €20,000 (£16,000), The Times reported on 14 August. Her defence was that she was tricked into carrying the money by a friend, Amal El-Wahabi, , of northwest London, who herself is facing up to 14 years in jail after being found guilty of funding terrorism.
  • Unrest continues at Plymouth University after July’s announcement that its vice-chancellor, Wendy Purcell, had been “placed on leave” by the board of governors. Plymouth released a statement last week that said it was “continuing with its business as usual” and appealed for “an end to any unhelpful and inaccurate speculation”. Then the university’s former pro-chancellor and former chair of governors, Barbara Bond, released a statement on 15 August that accused the current chair of governors, William Taylor, of “poor governance practice” and risking “serious reputational damage” to the university. She also called for Professor Purcell to be reinstated. Plymouth followed up by saying that it was “a matter of some concern” that Ms Bond’s statement, “which contains a number of factual inaccuracies, might be used to deflect the attention of the governing body away from the investigation currently underway into the alleged conduct of the vice-chancellor”. Other universities will be hoping that such a tide of “business as usual” never hits them.
  • News that the University of Cambridge was advertising for a three-year PhD studentship focused on chocolate was gobbled up by the nation’s media. “The project will investigate the factors which allow chocolate, which has a melting point close to that of the human body, to remain solid and retain qualities sought by consumers when it is stored and sold in warm climates,” explained the ad for the “mainly experimental” project. The research is “sponsored by an unnamed company that is said to have existing technology in this field that it wants to build upon”, said the Daily Mail on 18 August. However, the newspaper did warn that only chocoholics with advanced mathematics skills would stand any chance of landing the studentship and that supervisors would include a professor of geotechnical engineering – not exactly Willy Wonka.
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