The week in higher education - 27 November 2014

November 27, 2014
  • BBC bosses are considering introducing a quota of at least one woman per team on University Challenge amid fears that it is “probably the most unrepresentative show on TV”, The Times reported on 20 November. Only 43 of the 224 contestants in the past two years have been female, and just 11 made it through to the second round, the paper said. To tackle the prevalence of all-male panels, producers are looking at the radical quota proposals, although the Beeb is, for now, merely asking universities “to reflect the diversity” of the student body when selecting teams. However, the other big diversity issue for the programme will go unchanged for now. In last year’s series, almost half the teams featured on the BBC2 show came from Oxbridge colleges, with no post-92 university featuring at all.
  • A bogus journal agreed to publish a manuscript sent by an exasperated academic that consisted entirely of the words “get me off your fucking mailing list”. Peter Vamplew, associate professor at the Federation University Australia’s School of Engineering and Information Technology, sent the anti-spam article to the International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology, in which the expletive-laden phrase is merely repeated over and over again for 10 pages, the Scholarly Open Access blog reported on 20 November. In light of its contents, Dr Vamplew was surprised when the journal not only accepted the paper, produced in 2005 in a protest against unsolicited invitations to academic conferences, but also described it as “excellent”. The supposedly peer-reviewed journal claimed to have made some “minor changes” to the paper, but it isn’t clear which one of the seven words of text was altered. Dr Vamplew declined to send the $150 (£95) that the journal charges for publication.
  • Most politicians might think twice before posing in front of a statement proclaiming the value of free university education after Nick Clegg’s travails over the past four years. But not Alex Salmond, who on 18 November proudly unveiled at Heriot-Watt University a commemorative stone inscribed with his March 2011 statement on university costs. The monument says: “The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students.” Admittedly, Scotland’s First Minister did so on his penultimate day in office, so he left little time for a humiliating Clegg-style U-turn. “It is without doubt now a commitment writ in stane,” said Mr Salmond. The term “caught between a rock and a hard place” will now seem very apt for Scottish universities fretting over their future funding.
  • Half of all places at the University of Edinburgh are to be given to international students, The Sunday Telegraph reported on 23 November. The “long-term aspiration”, revealed by principal and vice-chancellor Sir Timothy O’Shea at a recent meeting of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, will in effect limit the number of British students able to attend the Russell Group university, the paper said. The increase would mean that only the London School of Economics, where 67 per cent of students come from abroad, will have a higher proportion of international students than Edinburgh.
  • Despite a distinct lack of evidence that higher education is a haven for religious extremism, politicians once again focused on universities in the latest terror crackdown. Under new powers announced by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, on 24 November, ministers will be able to ban extremist preachers from campuses if a university refuses to do so, The Daily Telegraph reported on 24 November. Balancing national security with freedom of speech is, of course, a tricky business, but many will worry that Ms May will in effect allow the state to control who appears on campus. Her policies certainly jar with the Education Act 1986, which says “steps [should be taken] to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for…visiting speakers” regardless of their beliefs or objectives. That law was passed by the Thatcher government primarily to stop militant students’ unions banning Conservative Party speakers from talking to students – a heritage that will, no doubt, be lost on most Tories voting to support Ms May’s measures.
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