The week in higher education – 24 August 2017

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

August 24, 2017
Week in HE illustration (24 August 2017)

Although everyone is wondering if Donald Trump can last a full four years as US president, there is also the slightly more trivial matter of whether he can hold on to all his honorary degrees. The Guardian reported on 18 August that Mr Trump could face being stripped of an honorary doctorate, given to him in 1988 by Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University, after a former student launched a petition arguing that the president’s “rejection of diversity and his lack of respect for the differences of others around him stands in direct opposition to the principles laid out” at the institution. The petition was launched in the wake of the controversy over comments made by Mr Trump about far-right protests in Charlottesville, Virginia. If the degree is rescinded, the Donald would still have three other honorary doctorates, two of which come from Liberty University in Virginia. But he has already been stripped of another honorary degree by Robert Gordon University, in Aberdeen, over his election campaign call for Muslims to be banned from entering the US.

Trump’s honorary degrees may last longer than England’s university funding system, however. Last week, another major figure jumped on the “you know what, this system of high tuition fees actually might be a bad idea” bandwagon that has been rolling into town over the past few months. The latest detractor is Theresa May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy, who said in an article for The Daily Telegraph that the system of high fees and state loans amounted to an “unsustainable and ultimately pointless Ponzi scheme”. Choosing to compare higher education funding to the infamous investment fraud did not seem too original: a quick search of the Times Higher Education archives reveals that student loans and Ponzi have appeared in the same sentence several times in the past five years. But the pressure for reform does seem to be ratcheting up to a new level every day at the moment.

“Boozy uni bender” read the headline in The Sun on 18 August, above a report on how Russell Group universities had spent more than £1.4 million on alcohol over the past three years. The University of Cambridge and eight of its colleges topped the list with a £593,454 spend on wine, beer and spirits, according to Freedom of Information requests. But The Sun was silent on how much of this was presumably purchased for institutions’ revenue-generating conferencing and events arms. A Russell Group spokesman told the newspaper that in the past five years its members had “spent more than £30 billion on staff and invested £9 billion in facilities to ensure that students left university having had a world-class learning experience, not simply a glass of wine at graduation”.

Universities minister Jo Johnson hopes that new providers will be able to offer students new styles of higher education in the UK. Any school-leavers hoping for a more disciplined approach to learning will probably find it at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, which has announced that new recruits will be able to study for a BSc in leadership and strategic studies, in partnership with the University of Reading. Paul Nanson, the academy’s commandant, told The Daily Telegraph on 14 August that the programme was aimed at “the youngster who says I always wanted to join the army but I felt the pressure to get a degree”. Assessment will mainly be through exams and written work – meaning that expectations of modules on boot scrubbing and bed-making may be misguided.

The fatal stabbing of a Chicago hairstylist was part of a sexual fantasy concocted in an online chatroom between a microbiology researcher and a University of Oxford administrator, who planned to kill him and then themselves, a court has heard. Wyndham Lathem, associate professor of microbiology-immunology at Northwestern University, and Andrew Warren, a senior treasury assistant at Somerville College, Oxford, appeared in a Chicago court charged with the murder of Mr Lathem’s boyfriend, Trenton Cornell-Duranleau, after handing themselves in after an eight-day manhunt, The Guardian reported on 21 August. The bond hearing heard that Mr Lathem and Mr Warren had corresponded for months about the plan, with Mr Lathem paying for Mr Warren’s ticket to the US. Prosecutors said that Mr Lathem let Mr Warren into his condo before starting to attack sleeping Mr Cornell-Duranleau, with Mr Warren later joining in the attack with a heavy lamp and kitchen knives. Why Mr Lathem and Mr Warren did not follow through on the alleged plan to kill themselves afterwards was not clear. The case continues, and both of the accused will have a chance to enter pleas at a later hearing.

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