The week in higher education – 26 May 2016

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

May 26, 2016
 The week in higher education cartoon (26 May 2016)

Another year, another story about outrage over students seemingly being banned from throwing their mortar boards in the air because of fears for health and safety. This year’s version had a new spin, however, as third- and fourth-year students at the University of East Anglia have been offered the opportunity to mime the riotous hat-tossing moment for photographs and to have the mortar boards later added digitally at a cost of £8, BBC News online reported on 18 May. Some students were not happy with that compromise: one obligingly uttered the line “this is health and safety gone mad” to The Tab, which broke the story. UEA said that it had not introduced a specific ban on throwing mortar boards, but had asked photographers not to encourage the practice because some students had in the past suffered facial injuries.


A two-day staff walkout at universities was set to go ahead this week after fresh talks failed to break the deadlock in a bitter pay row. Not long after the meeting between the University and College Union (UCU) and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (Ucea) on 19 May – the final scheduled date in this year’s pay negotiations – Sally Hunt, the UCU’s general secretary, called the 1.1 per cent pay offer an “insult to hard-working staff, especially in light of the 5 per cent pay rise vice-chancellors have enjoyed while holding down staff pay”. Sir Paul Curran, chair of Ucea, which argues that the pay offer averages 2.7 per cent when elements such as progression pay are factored in, said that “employers remain committed to the fair final offer they have made”, which was “at, and for some beyond, a limit of affordability for higher institutions”. The impasse will see UCU members strike on 25 and 26 May, although Ucea claimed that “the vast majority of staff will be working to ensure minimum disruption”.


An earnest letter by a young MP called George Osborne railing about the injustice of tuition fees has been discovered by a former constituent, The Guardian reported on 17 May. Violinist Rosy Williams uncovered the unlikely missive, which was sent in 2003 by the up-and-coming MP for Tatton, as she was looking through a box of old papers, the newspaper said. In the letter written on House of Commons-headed notepaper, the future chancellor describes the annual charges – then about £1,000 – as “very unfair” and a “tax on learning”. Referring to the policy of abolishing tuition fees – which the Tories had at that time – and to his own fee-free education at the University of Oxford, Mr Osborne stated that it was important for people to speak out against fees so that “students will get a fair deal”. The letter’s discovery came at an awkward time for Mr Osborne, whose government’s White Paper on higher education will allow tuition fees to increase beyond their current £9,000 maximum.


The University of Cambridge has moved to abolish the unique tradition of public degree results lists, Cambridge News reported on 18 May. The centuries-old practice of displaying student exam results on the boards outside Senate House is set to be scrapped after the university’s council recommended that it “should be discontinued” from 1 October. Anonymised results data will continue to be distributed across the university administration on a “need-to-know” basis, and the names of prize-winning students will still be made public. Ending the practice, seen as upsetting for underachievers, will however rob students of the opportunity to discuss how the various slackers in their year scraped a Desmond after three years of hedonistic partying.


“Sexist” advice on how female students should dress at graduation ceremonies has been deleted from the University of Edinburgh’s website after it admitted an error, The Huffington Post reported on 19 May. The what-to-wear guide had advised “girls” to purchase a £785 clutch bag “to store your lippy and smartphone”, stating that: “Remember, image is everything!” But the advice, apparently written by the luxury retailer Harvey Nichols, urging soon-to-be graduates to don a “little black dress”, provoked fierce criticism online after it was emailed to students in a newsletter. Edinburgh said that the article had not been published to its usual standards, adding that it is “not our normal practice to promote or advertise any external companies or services. The page had not gone through the correct approval process and has since been taken down.” Even Harvey Nichols seemed contrite, saying “the comments put forward are not reflective of our company’s brand values and as such have been taken down”.

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