The week in higher education - 31 July 2014

July 31, 2014
  • Barely two weeks after stepping down as minister for universities and science, David Willetts has advocated selling off student debt to universities so that institutions have a “direct financial incentive” to make sure their graduates earn lots in the future. Writing in the Financial Times, Mr Willetts said that some universities “could do better” when it came to graduate employment and earnings, and such a system would force them to “raise their game”. He brushed aside concerns that the debts could “dwarf” universities’ assets, or that the policy would encourage universities to take only those students with lucrative future careers. “It is not a failure if you become a theologian instead of a banker,” he wrote. No doubt this insight will tug at the heartstrings of vice-chancellors wondering whether to cut all courses except quantitative finance and to admit only old Etonians.
  • Universities have “targeted more than nine million of their former students with cold calls and spam emails over the past year as they increasingly adopt US-style tactics to raise funds”, The Independent reported on 28 July. Although UK universities raised £660 million this way in 2012-13, compared with just £80 million spent, the paper noted that only 174,000 of the 9.3 million people approached last year (a near-doubling over the past decade) actually made a donation. It also claimed that the tactic had “angered graduates of wealthy universities who are still struggling to pay back huge levels of student debt” and predicted an even higher proportion of closed wallets among the £9,000-fee generation.
  • However, it seems that students are not averse to a bit of fundraising when it is for their own benefit. The Daily Mail reported on 25 July that an Oxford graduate has raised more than half the £26,000 she needs to do an MSc in cognitive and evolutionary anthropology. Emily-Rose Eastop graduated with a 2:1 in human sciences from Magdalen College in 2010, but has “spent the last four years living off her mother and boyfriend and living in her family’s large Victorian London home”. Unable to find a job, she wants to do a master’s, but claims her £20,000 student debt means that she can’t afford the fees. She has succeeded in “crowdfunding” more than £14,000 from 200 donors, including £250 from Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker and £50 from “an Austrian atheist who won the right to wear a pasta strainer on his head for his passport photo”. But others have dismissed her as a “posh brat”.
  • Ed Miliband’s rebranding of himself as the political leader with the “empathy factor” has apparently been inspired by a University of Cambridge psychologist. The Sunday Times reported on July that Mr Miliband has had “several conversations” with autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen, professor of developmental psychopathology at Cambridge and author of Zero Degrees of Empathy, which “argues that empathy is a key characteristic for political leaders”. In a speech confronting his perceived image problem, Mr Miliband mentioned empathy seven times, while also admitting that he looked like Gromit’s chum, Wallace. However, it is unclear whether Mr Miliband put himself in Wallace’s shoes and asked himself how the Plasticine star would feel about being likened to a dull-as-ditchwater politician who can’t even eat a bacon sarnie without looking like a fool.
  • Academics are aware of the risk of having the glory for their discoveries stolen by unscrupulous colleagues. But should they also be equally wary of children? Lauren Arrington’s school science project won her fame in the US when it apparently revealed that an invasive, venomous species of fish thought only to live in saltwater could actually survive in river estuaries. However, The Washington Post reported on 23 July that the 13-year-old’s story has been contested by marine biologist Zack Jud, who claimed he published these findings three years earlier. Dr Jud, a recent doctoral graduate from Florida International University, pointed out that Ms Arrington was the daughter of his former supervisor’s best friend and suggested there had been “poor parenting”. Ms Arrington’s father, Albrey, blamed media sensationalism, saying he and his daughter had repeatedly mentioned Dr Jud’s work in interviews.
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