The week in higher education – 28 April 2016

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

April 28, 2016
The week in higher education cartoon (28 April 2016)

History PhD student Hannah Woods was the winning captain in last week’s University Challenge final, but attention has bizarrely focused not on her quizzing prowess but on her naturally arched left eyebrow. Woods’ so-called Roger Moore eyebrow spawned two parody Twitter accounts, a Valentine Day’s card and an online marriage proposal during Peterhouse College, Cambridge's run to the final, The Daily Telegraph reported  on 18 April. Ms Woods explained that her face was naturally asymmetric, saying that her left brow “tends to float ever-higher up [her] face”, giving the appearance that she was “rather wry and challenging”. But she added that she was "slightly baffled by the level of eyebrow attention – I’ve found it all quite funny, though I tend to agree with the people who have asked ‘is this news?’”.

Students from several universities have threatened to split from the National Union of Students after the election of Malia Bouattia as president. Harry Samuels, an NUS delegate from the University of Oxford, told the BBC’s Newsnight on 21 April that Ms Bouattia’s appointment was undemocratic, as she was not elected under a system of “one member, one vote”. Ms Bouattia has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks – including calling the University of Birmingham “something of a Zionist outpost” in 2011. While the move to disaffiliate was “not just about Malia in particular…her election enshrines the fact that the NUS no longer represents all students”, said Mr Samuels. Ms Bouattia has said that she is "extremely uncomfortable with insinuations of anti-Semitism", adding: “For me to take issue with Zionist politics is not me taking issue with being Jewish." She said that it was "a political argument, not one of faith”, adding that she had a “long track record of opposing racism and discrimination in all its forms and actively campaigning against it”.

Students at an elite Paris university have been criticised for asking people to wear a Muslim headscarf for a day to help them understand Islamophobia. The event at Sciences Po follows comments by French prime minister Manuel Valls calling on universities to ban the hijab on campus, in line with France’s strict policy of state secularism, The Guardian reported on 20 April. Organisers of the Sciences Po initiative claimed that it would help “demystify” the headscarf, but the move was attacked by some staff and student groups as a “provocation”. “So when is there going to be a sharia day? Or stoning day? Or slavery day?”, tweeted Bernard-Henri Lévy, a writer and philosopher, while Bruno Le Maire, a former agriculture minister and Sciences Po professor, wrote of his disapproval at so-called Hijab Day. “In France, women are visible. No proselytising!” he said.

The potential for a PhD to massively increase earning power was at the heart of a shocking court case that left a couple “devastated” and financially ruined, BBC News reported on 20 April. Frank and Marilyn Boardman agreed to support their daughter, Nicola, through a PhD at the University of Oxford after she told them that she would make £3 million from her subsequent career and pay them back. But Boardman, from Truro, Cornwall, who had a history of battling heroin addiction, had not been accepted for any study and cheated her parents out of £250,000 over the course of four years, in which they paid for “university trips” to Greece and Mongolia. “This was all made up,” said Philip Lee, prosecuting, shortly before Boardman was jailed for three years and four months, after pleading guilty to one count of fraud at Truro Crown Court. Tragically, the couple sold their home to support their daughter’s supposed studies, leaving them with no funds for their retirement.

Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, has warned that Brexit could create a “science and innovation crisis”. Mr Johnson, an enthusiastic advocate for the European Union in contrast to his brother Boris, spoke in London on 21 April to pose the question: “Are we going to preserve the factors that have created a great tech cluster, or succumb to fanciful Brexit bluster?” His speech added, with more bizarre rhymes: “Do we want to fuel our knowledge economy with science and innovation, or fill it up with piffle and ventilation?” The word “piffle” has an interesting Johnsonian heritage: Boris used it to criticise David Cameron’s “broken society” comments in 2008 and in his 2004 denial of allegations that he had an extramarital affair – a denial that eventually saw him sacked from the Conservative opposition front bench.

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