The week in higher education – 22 December 2016

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

December 22, 2016
The week in higher education cartoon (22 December 2016)

Often academic research on Christmas-related themes tends towards the more quirky but Santa Claus may be more worried by the discovery that the world’s largest wild reindeer herd has fallen by 40 per cent since 2000. According to a BBC report, the animals in the Taimyr Peninsula in the northernmost tip of Russia are being affected by rising temperatures and human activity. The herd’s population reached a height of 1 million in 2000 but research presented at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) suggests that there are now only 600,000 reindeer. “There is a substantial decline – and we are also seeing this with other wild reindeer declining rapidly in other parts of the world,” said Andrey Petrov, who runs the Arctic Centre at the University of Northern Iowa.


Christmas spirit seems to be slightly thin on the ground at University College London where the rapid expansion of student numbers has led to “frustration and resentment” among some staff, the Financial Times reported. The newspaper claims that some senior academics at the institution want to call a vote of no confidence in management over the growth, which they say is “straining resources and threatening its reputation” and has led to some lectures taking place in hotels and student meetings being held in coffee shops. UCL told the newspaper, which says that it has seen more than 100 pages of memos, transcripts of conversations and official correspondence on the issue, that it “did not recognise the description of there being huge discontent” at the institution. “Our growth in staff and student numbers is a testament to success,” the UCL statement added.


A university that has one of the worst records in UK higher education in terms of intake of state school students has launched a two-pronged drive on the issue. The Times reported that the University of Bristol is to lower its entry grades for applicants who are from state schools that are in the bottom 40 per cent of A-level results, and will also target disadvantaged students in every local school by making lower offers. The approach appears to chime with findings in a recent groundbreaking book, Family Background and University Success, on improving social mobility that suggests that universities should use contextual admissions to target badly performing schools rather than students from poorer families. But only time will tell if Bristol’s sometimes warranted reputation as a home for private school Oxbridge rejects can finally be consigned to history.


Law students in Russia have complained about having to attend “patriotic education” lectures by a senior priest, BBC News online reported on 14 December. As part of a state-backed programme of “spiritual and moral education”, students at the Novosibirsk Law Institute, in Siberia, were asked to attend two lectures by Dmitry Polushin, an archpriest in the Russian Orthodox Church, in which he praised President Vladimir Putin and warned against foreign threats, the site said. “He said [that] we had to believe in our dear father the tsar, that is Putin, and that our land was the target of curses and priests were guarding us,” one disgruntled undergraduate told the local news site Tayga.info. But Father Dmitry defended the lectures, which touched on the “troubles” in Ukraine and the dangers facing Russia, asking “Who else should tell them to love the motherland?”. “There are concepts that can only be understood in spiritual and moral terms,” he added. Lidia Chumakova, the institute’s director, accused Tayga.info of failing to understand the importance of patriotic education at a time when there is a “growing threat of the dissemination of extremist ideas among young people”.


The head of a Spanish university who spearheaded an anti-plagiarism crackdown has been accused of ripping off others’ work himself, BBC News online reported on 16 December. Fernando Suarez, rector of King Juan Carlos University, in Madrid, has been accused of repeatedly copying other people’s work without giving credit, the site said. The allegations follow the announcement last month that the university was rolling out a new system to monitor submitted assignments for plagiarism. The embattled university leader has claimed that he is the victim of defamation and harassment but it was announced last week that he has left a national education commission due to “information published about presumed plagiarism”. Some nine petitions have been set up calling for his resignation as rector, attracting tens of thousands of signatures, the BBC said. “Plagiarism is grounds for any student to be suspended immediately,” noted one student quoted on the site.

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