The week in higher education - 30 January 2014

January 30, 2014
  • A business student is hoping to clear debts of $31,000 (£18,700) by selling advertising on his graduation mortar board, Fox News reported on 21 January. Alex Benda, who will graduate from the University of Michigan-Flint this spring, is offering 100 one-inch squares on the top of his 10in x 10in hat to advertisers at $300 each, with promised publicity coming in the form of close-up media shots of the unusual headgear. Mr Benda said he had already accrued $1,615 in donations during the first few days of his money-making scheme. The 22-year-old’s use of a mortar board is not entirely novel, as he explained that graduates often wrote things such as “Hire me” or “Thanks, Mom and Dad” on them. “I was joking, ‘someone should sell ad space on there’ and it dawned on me, that’s what I should do,” he said.
  • The new head of England’s university funding body must be hoping her organisation’s fortunes will change soon. Not only is the Higher Education Funding Council for England, where Madeleine Atkins took over as chief executive this month, facing the funding it distributes being cut even further, it also had terrible luck when its staff appeared on the BBC Two quiz show Eggheads. Having battled gamely to a tiebreaker round, the Hefce team was stumped when asked to name the comedian whose Out Out tour sold out venues in 2011 (answer: Micky Flanagan). In contrast, the Eggheads (the quiz gurus that Hefce was challenging) were almost embarrassed to be asked one of the easiest questions of the show: which former bank boss was stripped of his knighthood in 2012? (answer: Fred “the Shred” Goodwin).
  • A team of Finnish computer scientists is hoping to create a humour algorithm that will help computers to tell jokes, The Daily Telegraph reported on 22 January. Led by Hannu Toivonen at the University of Helsinki, researchers analysed why some autocorrect errors in predictive text messages were more amusing than others. In a paper called “Let Everything Turn Well in Your Wife: Generation of Adult Humour Using Lexical Constraints”, Professor Toivonen found the rogue autocorrect “meet at the bum stop” was considered more entertaining than the far-from-classic “just off from berk…sorry, I mean work”. The work will be used to help make predictive texts funnier, though perhaps the research could be extended to help academia understand the questionable appeal of BBC One show Mrs Brown’s Boys.
  • The University of Cambridge lavished almost £3 million on wine last year, the Daily Mail reported on 22 January. Figures obtained by student newspaper The Tab showed that the university’s 31 colleges spent about £7,000 a day on wine in 2012-13, with King’s College spending almost £850 per undergraduate in the year – a sum branded “impressively ludicrous” by a student officer. Cambridge’s expenditure compared with the £2.7 million poured into outreach schemes that year and £5.8 million on bursaries, was an “unacceptable” luxury when many college kitchen staff were not paid the living wage, students said. While many colleges served wine free of charge to fellows at High Table, several bursars said that much of it was used at conferences or resold to students.
  • Two student protesters charged with assault and resisting arrest are each set to receive £20,000 in damages after a YouTube video revealed what a judge called “shocking inconsistencies” in police officers’ accounts of the events, the London Student reported on January. Former London School of Economics student Ashok Kumar was accused of twice pushing a police officer at a protest during a talk by David Willetts, the universities and science minister, at Soas, University of London in June 2011. Simon Behrman, a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, was also charged with assaulting an officer on the day. However, the cases against them were dropped this month after video footage showed no assault or obstruction had taken place. “What was astonishing was I was sitting in court and there were officers there ready to testify that I had done something when it was as clear as day from the video that I hadn’t,” said Mr Kumar, who is now a PhD student at the University of Oxford.
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