The week in higher education – 24 September 2015

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

September 24, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (24 September 2015)

How to unboil an egg and research testing the principle that almost all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds were projects recognised by this year’s Ig Nobel prizes, honouring “achievements that make people laugh, and then think”. The awards, started by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine and announced on 18 September, also saw Bruno Gossi of the University of Chile and colleagues recognised for their journal paper observing that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked. Mark Dingemans of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, and colleagues took the literature prize for discovering that the word “huh?” (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language. Appropriately, that might be most people’s reaction to the project.

There was a lot of talk about who would be the winners and losers when the government started to remove student number controls. It is now clear who the big winners are: Travelodge and Premier Inn. The annual story of students being “forced to spend the first two weeks of their studies living in hotels” was aired in The Observer on 13 September, with the University of Reading the subject this time. The university has “accepted 3,884 undergraduates so far this academic year – almost 400 more than last year – but it does not have enough rooms for them in its own halls of residence”, the newspaper added. To be fair to Reading, one student said on Facebook that he had been given a room at the four-star Millennium Madejski Hotel, which normally costs about £150 a night but for which he was paying £19.50, with the university covering the rest of the bill.

The Jeremy Corbyn-academia connection is under scrutiny. Tony Parsons, writing in GQ magazine to explain why he would never be able to vote for Labour, raised questions about some of Mr Corbyn’s supporters. “Who are these people screaming ‘Tory scum’? Most seem to hail from academia or the creative arts and have a column or blog in The Guardian. They are certainly not the working class,” he wrote. Michael Deacon, in his 15 September Daily Telegraph sketch on Mr Corbyn’s now infamous appearance at a Battle of Britain commemoration service, said that the Labour leader “looked like a lecturer who’d woken late, got dressed in the dark, then loosened his collar to recover from the mad panting dash to the bus stop”. Mr Corbyn does not have a degree himself – but man and movement seem to have the air of academia about them, in some eyes.

Engineering students at Queen’s University Belfast built a 100ft bridge across the River Lagan made entirely from Meccano. Trevor Whittaker, professor of coastal engineering, walked across the bridge to mark the completion of the project, which was led by Danny McPolin of the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering. The year-long project was part of the university's outreach programme to encourage more children to think about careers in science, technology, engineering and technology, BBC website reported on 19 September. As it followed hot on the heels of the University of Cambridge’s Lego professorship, the race is now on for a UK university to find an academic use for Playmobil.

Asked once whether he had smoked cannabis in his younger days, David Cameron replied: “I had a normal university experience.” But standard definitions of the student experience do not even begin to cover lurid – although uncorroborated – claims that he inserted “a private part of his anatomy” into a dead pig’s mouth as part of an initiation ceremony for the Piers Gaveston dining society while at the University of Oxford. The claims – made by an unnamed MP who is said to have seen a picture of the incident – were outlined in a biography of the prime minister by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft and journalist Isabel Oakeshott, extracts of which were published in the Daily Mail on 21 September. Until things have died down, Mr Cameron is likely to stay well away from any visits to Harper Adams University, whose 230-sow pig research unit would only further embarrass the prime minister with harrowing – or farrowing – photo opportunities.

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