The week in higher education – 3 August 2017

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

August 3, 2017
Week in HE illustration (3 August 2017)

When Michael Phelps announced that he was to race a great white shark, many wondered how history’s greatest swimmer would stay out of the jaws of the ocean’s most feared predator. In fact, the 28-time Olympic medallist was completely safe because his adversary for the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” contest was actually a computer-generated image of a great white that had been filmed earlier off the coast of South Africa using an overhead drone. The individual seemingly most at risk during the bizarre showdown was the scientist asked to get up close and personal with the 2.25-tonne fish. According to The Times on 25 July, the scientist tasked with ensuring that the shark swam in a straight line for the footage did so by “pedalling furiously on a precarious contraption equivalent to a bicycle on skis, towing a baited line, with a shark in hot pursuit”. An unusual scenario for a scholar, but not a bad analogy for modern academia, some might argue.

A university vice-chancellor on £227,000 a year has claimed that he cannot do his job properly because he does not have a grace-and-favour home, The Daily Telegraph reported on 26 July. Craig Mahoney, who leads the University of the West of Scotland, defended the salaries paid to him and to fellow university heads, saying: “Do I think we’re paid too much? No, not really. My job is pretty all-consuming,” the Telegraph reported. “I can’t do my job properly because I’m not provided with a house. My job involves a lot of entertaining,” added the former head of the Higher Education Academy. Professor Mahoney said that he hoped to arrange a new dwelling for his successor because it would help the individual to fulfil university-related social engagements. That rationale was, unsurprisingly, overlooked in the furore that followed, with former education minister Lord Adonis once again taking to Twitter to berate university leaders over their pay and perks.

The University of Cambridge is often portrayed as one of the UK’s most selective institutions, but its applicants-per-place ratio looks far from impressive compared with a new rival: ITV2’s Love Island. According to the student newspaper The Tab, some 80,000 people applied for the 32 berths on the reality TV show this year, compared with 17,000 seeking a place at Cambridge in 2017, with about 4,000 accepted to study, Metro reported on 26 July. While Cambridge dons will not be too worried about the new competition, perhaps they might soon consider some Love Island-style tactics to expand their pool of applicants. Moving the Michaelmas term to a luxury Majorcan villa, for instance, might appeal to some potential students put off by the East Anglian rain.

A Star Wars-inspired paper on the science behind the Jedi’s “Force” was accepted for publication by four journals, the science magazine Discover reported on 22 July. In a sting on “predatory publishers”, a neuroscientist blogging anonymously under the name Neuroskeptic submitted a spoof paper on cell components called “midi-chlorians”, which allegedly give Jedi their powers, the magazine said. The paper cited an array of Star Wars-related characters before quoting Obi-Wan Kenobi’s famous monologue on the “Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise”. If the mention of so many intergalactic characters was not clue enough to the prank, the mention of “sinister buttocks” might have been a giveaway to the journals. Referencing a 2014 Times Higher Education story that highlighted the practice of “Rogeting” – in which plagiarists create meaningless phrases by their ill-considered use of Roget’s thesaurus to disguise copied material – the blogger admitted in the paper itself that he had simply copied most of the text from a Wikipedia page before artfully weaving in a few nonsensical Star Wars synonyms.

After supporting a campaign of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers, Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, has redirected his ire towards the University of Oxford. Mr Duterte was angered by an Oxford report that claimed that the populist politician’s supporters had paid out a total of $200,000 (£152,000) to get people to defend him on social media, The Daily Telegraph reported. Mr Duterte said that this had happened during the 2016 election campaign, but had ceased since he took office. “I do not need to defend myself against attacks,” he told the local news website, Rappler. Nevertheless, Mr Duterte felt compelled to add: “Oxford University? That’s a school for stupid people.”

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