The week in higher education – 30 June 2016

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

June 30, 2016
The week in higher education cartoon (30 June 2016)

University leaders did their best to hide their disappointment at the UK’s momentous decision to leave the European Union. In a low-key statement issued on 24 June, Universities UK president Dame Julia Goodfellow, vice-chancellor of the University of Kent, remarked that Brexit would “create significant challenges for universities” and “is not an outcome that we wished or campaigned for” –  a sentiment echoed by countless other anodyne statements from university top brass, whose private comments about the referendum results are too strong to print. Imperial College London president Alice Gast struck a slightly more defiant tone, saying that “Imperial is, and will remain, a European university, whatever your view of the referendum outcome”. Steve West, vice-chancellor of the University of the West of England, also took a different tack with a call for national unity, in which we can “calmly find a path that builds bridges where there is difference, connection where there is disconnect and disbelief”.

Meanwhile, the town-gown division that characterised the Brexit vote was neatly summed up with the online reaction to an editorial by Ross Anderson, an elected member of the University of Cambridge’s council. Writing on the Cambridge News website on 21 June, Professor Anderson warned readers that a Brexit vote would cost the university £100 million a year – about 10 per cent of its turnover and three times worse than cuts seen during the 2008 financial slump. “Much of the pain would fall on research staff on fixed-term contracts; they would simply not be renewed,” wrote Anderson, who sits on Cambridge’s budget committee, adding that they would not “need as many service and support staff either”. Some of those commenting underneath were, however, not too convinced or even that bothered by these predictions, with one stating that they were “actually hoping that the universities are a lot less busy, then we might get some much needed housing”, with another hitting out at “self-interested academics”.

Some of the UK’s top scientists were fairly blunt in their assessment of what Brexit means for research. James Wilsdon, professor of research policy at the University of Sheffield, described it as a “catastrophic result” for the higher education research community, while Liam Gaffney, a nuclear physicist at the University of the West of Scotland, called Brexit a “kick in the teeth” for the prospects of young physicists, according to a BuzzFeed round-up of scientific opinion on 24 June. “It is hard not to see Brexit as being extremely bad for science in the UK,” said Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, who warned of a brain drain to the EU. “This is just so incredibly depressing,” added Andrew Steele, a computational biologist at the Crick Institute, while Philip Moriarty, professor of physics at the University of Nottingham, was even more succinct. “My first reaction when I checked my phone at 06:15 this morning? ‘Oh, bollocks’”, he said.

While academic opinion has been largely ignored by the UK electorate, another country has turned to the university sector for political leadership. Iceland has elected university historian Gudni Johannesson as its next president amid public dissatisfaction with political elites, the Financial Times reported on 26 June. Johannesson, who is not affiliated to any of Iceland’s political parties, said that he promised to bring stability and a new leadership style to the small Nordic island, the paper said. “I ran on the agenda of being outside political debates and disputes, rather than stepping into debates and controversy,” he said, adding how “important it is for us as a small nation to stick together”. The non-politician Johannesson started as he means to proceed: one of his first acts as president was to fly to France to watch Iceland’s football team play England in Euro 2016.

A hacker has leaked the personal details of University of Greenwich students for the second time this year, the Evening Standard reported on 18 June. Confidential data, including students’ full names and contact details, coursework results and feedback, their medical histories and immigrations statuses, were posted on the internet, with more than 21,000 emails likely to have been compromised overall, the paper said. The perpetrator claimed to be a disgruntled student who was kicked out of Greenwich due to his “elite skills and e-fame”. “I’ve used the skills I’ve obtained to show you how good I actually am – please let me come back,” said the hacker, whose actions follow a similar data breach in February.

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