The week in higher education – 3 November 2016

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

November 3, 2016
The week in higher education cartoon (3 November 2016)

Medical students in New Zealand have taken to doing invasive surgical procedures on themselves, The Guardian reported on 28 October. Some 5 per cent of students surveyed at the University of Otago – the country’s oldest university – admitted practising procedures, including cyst removals and inserting IVs, on their own bodies or on fellow medics at home, according to a paper in The New Zealand Medical Journal, the paper said. “At the moment, we don’t really know why the students are doing this, but anecdotally we have been told [that] it is to practise their skills in a private and stress-free environment,” said the study’s co-author Helen Nicholson, who is also Otago’s deputy vice-chancellor. While doctors are often known to self-diagnose and self-prescribe drugs, this is the first study to identify DIY operations by medical students, said Professor Nicholson. “Taking blood and removing cysts are definitely on the margins of [what is] acceptable and could potentially be dangerous procedures if something goes wrong,” warned another concerned Otago professor.

Forget sombreros, sushi and yoga, there is a new symbol of cultural appropriation – the canoe, according to a Canadian professor. While heralded as a potent symbol of Canadian identity, the canoe is, in fact, a “symbol of colonialism” with associations of theft, genocide and white privilege, according to Misao Dean, professor of English at the University of Victoria. In a CBC Radio interview earlier this year that has only recently attracted online attention, Professor Dean said that Canadians should examine why it is mainly “white men of a certain age…frequently highly educated” who have pushed “narratives that make the canoe into a kind of morally untouchable symbol, something that seems natural, that seems ordinary and seems to promote values that we ascribe to”. But, she added, “I think if you look a little further, that narrative obscures or erases another narrative…about theft and genocide”. Her musings have been condemned by some on the internet as another example of ultra-politically correct “campus craziness”, although the fact that the story was highlighted by new website Heat Street – headed by right-wing Twitter commentator and former Tory MP Louise Mensch – will cause many academics’ eyes to roll.

A UK vice-chancellor on a £400,000-plus salary has been criticised for putting biscuits worth £2 on her expenses bill, the Bath Chronicle reported on 26 October. Dame Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, incurred the wrath of students, staff and the Twittersphere for clawing back the cost of the biscuits as part of a £20,000 expenses bill last year, the local paper said. Critics pointed out that Dame Glynis’ £8,738 expenses claim for a housekeeper and £5,000-plus for gas and electricity were made even while she lives rent-free in a five-bedroom apartment on the historic Lansdown Crescent, one of Bath’s most desirable addresses. “The University of Bath is a fantastic asset to our city, but its vice-chancellor is taking us all for a ride,” said Labour councillor Joe Rayment, who obtained the statistics thanks to a Freedom of Information request. Bath said that costs relating to Lansdown Crescent “are not personal expenses...they are the running costs of a university-owned building used to conduct university business”.

Not only are British academics going to have to deal with the fallout from the Brexit vote – but they are now expected to wear permanent smiles about all the wonderful, definitely-for-real opportunities that it presents. Conservative MP and Brexiteer Chris Green said that there “needs to be a big change of mindset” among scientists, who had been overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the European Union. Quizzing Jo Johnson, the universities minister, about Brexit during a Westminster committee hearing on 26 October, the MP asked whether universities were now “looking forward” to the “opportunities” that the divorce will provide. Remainer Mr Johnson dutifully sounded chipper about the prospect of rethinking the UK’s international collaborations, but had to acknowledge that such an enticing exercise may come to nothing as we have no idea what will ultimately emerge from negotiations with the EU.

A UK student union sparked controversy this week by using images of Zayn Malik and Sadiq Khan on posters to promote Black History Month. Students at the University of Kent were quick to point out that neither the former One Direction singer nor the London mayor are black and that both are from British-Pakistani families, BBC News online reported on 26 October. UK organisers of Black History Month said that they were “deeply disappointed” by the union’s “ill-thought[-out] and misdirected” use of the figures. Rory Murray, the Kent Union president, apologised for “not getting it right”, adding that he “wanted to apologise to any individuals who were upset, uncomfortable or offended by the image shared”. 

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