The week in higher education – 27 July 2017

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

July 27, 2017
Week in HE illustration (27 July 2017)

Comments by Jeremy Corbyn insisting that Labour had not made a pre-election commitment to write off UK student debt were seized upon by opponents still angry that students helped to ruin Theresa May’s plans for an overall majority. In an interview with music magazine NME before the election, Mr Corbyn said that he would “deal with” the large sums of debt faced by students. But he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on 23 July that this did not amount to a promise to write off debts. “We never said that we would completely abolish it because we were unaware of the size of it at that time,” he said, according to a report in The Guardian. The comments were enough for a Daily Mail front page on 24 July attacking his “student debt humiliation”. Even new Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable got in on the act, although many pointed out that his party did not have the greatest track record itself on pledges to students.

A US student who “graded” his ex-girlfriend’s apology note and tweeted it has had his suspension lifted by a university appeal panel, the Miami Herald reported on 20 July. Nick Lutz’s post of the handwritten note – complete with his own snarky comments in red ink and a D- grade – attracted more than 120,000 retweets, but appeared to have backfired when the University of Central Florida suspended him from campus for two semesters. However, the 21-year-old sports management major, who was accused of breaking the school’s honour code by cyberbullying, managed to argue successfully that the university had gone too far, citing his First Amendment rights to free speech. “It was obvious that he was making fun of her, but that’s the beauty of the Constitution,” said the student’s lawyer, who thanked the appeal committee for “recognising that a student’s right to enjoy the freedom of expression is protected from ill-founded and abusive supervising by a public university.”

Several high-profile scholars had the misfortune – or perhaps luck – to feature in the BBC high pay list, where it emerged on 19 July that Brian Cox is worth about one-sixth of a Gary Lineker. Professor Cox, who was paid between £250,000 and £299,999 for two science shows, is in the same pay bracket as Today host Nick Robinson and Newsnight anchor Evan Davis – and is paid even more than every single Strictly Come Dancing judge (they get between £150,000 and £249,999 apiece). He is, however, some way behind the actor playing Charlie on Casualty (Derek Thompson is paid between £350,000 and £399,999). The bright-eyed University of Manchester professor is also some distance ahead of the next academic on the list, Columbia University’s Simon Schama, whose £150,000 to £199,999 pay for the TV series Civilisations is no doubt topped up nicely by his New York employer.

A US university connected to the Mormon church has fired a tutor after she expressed support for LGBT rights. Ruthie Robertson, an adjunct professor of international politics at Brigham Young University-Idaho, said in a Facebook post that heterosexuality and homosexuality are “both natural and neither is sinful”, The Washington Post reported on 19 July. Although the post was private, and she is not friends with any of her students on Facebook, some of her friends on the site reported her to the university, which is affiliated to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Administrators at the institution told her to take down the post but she refused. She was then told that she would not be returning to teach classes at the institution after the summer break.

Universities are expending much energy on debating how to respond to the possibility of robots taking up many of the jobs that they currently educate students for. But an unexpected position can be added to the list of posts that could be automated, the BBC reported on 17 July: the role of rower in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. Students at Peterhouse, Cambridge have created a robot rower – or “row-bot” – which has been tested on the River Cam. “We would be thrilled if other colleges – or even Oxford – stepped up to the competition and build their own versions to challenge our current sovereignty in the river,” research associate Andre Rosendo told the Cambridge News.

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