The week in higher education - 27 February 2014

February 27, 2014
  • US whistleblower Edward Snowden was “humbled” by his election as the University of Glasgow’s rector on 18 February, replacing former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy. Mr Snowden told The Guardian that “in a world where so many of our developing thoughts and queries and plans must be entrusted to the open internet, mass surveillance is not simply a matter of privacy but of academic freedom and human liberty”. His campaign spokesman, Chris Cassells, hailed Glasgow’s “proud and virtuous tradition” of making significant statements through its rectors. The first non-Scot to hold the role was anti-French Revolution philosopher Edmund Burke. Since then there has been a politically eclectic mix of former prime ministers and other political figures, such as Winnie Mandela and union activist Jimmy Reid. Whatever points were being made by the election of children’s TV presenter Johnny Ball or actor Ross Kemp are lost in the mists of time, however.
  • In an age in which so much news is first broken on the social media site Twitter, the absence of sub-editors and their irritating insistence on getting facts correct is often keenly felt. The Times reported on 19 February that one consequence was the dilution of police resources during the 2011 London riots, when tweeters spread false reports that animals had been released from London Zoo. Step forward a University of Sheffield-led European project to develop a tweet “lie detector” test. The “Pheme” system assesses veracity by tracing rumours to source and checking them against other sources. One case that might test its mettle is the recent tweet of BPP University vice-chancellor Carl Lygo, which read simply “In Macclesfield”. Presumably only CCTV footage could confirm that.
  • It seems the barbarians are not only at the door: they have kicked it down, marched into the living room and installed a giant home cinema system. The Financial Times reported on 22 February that the Victorian Gothic edifices of North Oxford, once stuffed with academics, are now affordable only to an “über-middle” class of bankers and lawyers, many of whom commute to London. Among the disastrous consequences is that scholars may struggle to buy in the catchment areas of well-regarded local state schools – the private ones now being beyond their means as well. Thank goodness, then, that Michael Gove’s free schools movement offers the hope of still keeping the riff-raff at arm’s length – provided academics don’t set up the schools themselves of course (see last week’s veto of an Institute of Education-sponsored free school in London).
  • Meanwhile, an Oxford academic has condemned the “dubious data” and “chaotic” approach that has led many academic art experts to mislabel counterfeit works as genuine. Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of art history, told The Observer on 23 February that the methods used by scholars to authenticate works were a “disgrace”, and were easily manipulated to boost academic reputations or trigger financial rewards. “Documentation, scientific analysis and judgement by eye are used – and ignored – opportunistically in ways that suit each advocate, who too frequently has undeclared interests,” he said. You could argue that this is no worse than the average academic’s experience of peer review, and that if rich people are daft enough to spend vast sums on paintings it is their own fault if they get swindled. But we’re no experts.
  • Oxford featured yet again [shouldn’t this section be called The Week in Oxford Higher Education? – Ed] on 24 February. The Daily Mail gleefully reported news that “distinguished” Classics professor Robin Lane Fox had written in a fashion exhibition review that “a woman’s evening dress should look like an apparently stormable fortress”. The Oxford Union women’s officer, Lucy Delaney, told student paper Cherwell that his comments were “misogynistic and reflective of the view that it is acceptable for men to govern the way women dress” for “their own sexual gratification”. Professor Lane Fox conceded that his remark was “a complete balls-up. I know absolutely sod all about fashion, but the phrase was stuck in my head.” Substitute “economics” for “fashion” and you get a plausible explanation of why the government initially thought only 30 per cent (as opposed to the current estimate of 40 per cent) of £9,000 student loans would not be repaid.
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