The week in higher education

December 6, 2012

• University College London is known for its association with Jeremy Bentham, but alumni have been surprised to receive in the post a paper lantern bearing an image of his head - as well as an email from the long-dead philosopher asking them for money. Bentham, presumably being channelled by a desperate UCL marketing officer, writes: "Recent changes in the way higher education is funded leave me troubled." Wise of him not to mention the trebling of tuition fees, lest it inspire bolshie UCL students to mount another occupation and call for the provost's head. But the philosopher then cuts to the chase and asks alumni for a £100 gift, which "would help offer scholarships and bursaries to less privileged students or support research". Bentham hopes that the paper lantern will "bring into your head memories of UCL and inspire a continuation of radical thoughts". Legend has it that Bentham's preserved skeleton is wheeled out for UCL council meetings - his post-mortem work surely deserves a salary.

• The struggle for gender equality in higher education has some way to go, to judge by the World Miss University contest. The event, held annually in South Korea, will take place on 11 December. Its "main aims are to promote world peace", noted The Dominion, of Wellington, New Zealand, as it celebrated the participation of Victoria University law student Sarah Munn. The newspaper said the event "selects a global peace corps representative created as part of a United Nations resolution in 1986". Or, as the event's website puts it in enigmatic English: "Female undergraduates with intelligence, high moral repute, and physical beauty and strength selected as the peace emissary lets the world know about happiness and world who may suffer from those elements that impede peace."

• A University of Oxford professor's death during a fight with a friend has been ruled accidental. Steven Rawlings, an internationally acclaimed astrophysicist who was receiving treatment for mental health problems, suffered a heart attack after being put in a headlock by mathematician Devinder Sivia, who tried to restrain him after he became violent. Dr Sivia had invited Professor Rawlings to stay at his home in Southmoor, Oxfordshire because of concerns about his mental well-being, but, he told an inquest in Oxford, his friend became "like a man possessed". The pair had been friends since meeting as undergraduates at St John's College, Cambridge, and had written a book together. A coroner returned a verdict of accidental death, The Guardian reported on 29 November.

• If there were a football-style league table ranking UK universities for negative publicity over the past few years, the University of Gloucestershire would be a Champions League contender behind the big guns of London Metropolitan University and the University of Wales. But on 3 December, Gloucestershire put aside past financial crises and acrimony between staff to trumpet a "record financial surplus" in 2011-12. It said that the surplus of £6.9 million, equating to 9.8 per cent of turnover, "reflects the university's success in student recruitment during 2011-12, including a 10 per cent growth in fee income and the development of additional income streams such as business development...collaborative partnerships and consultancy".

• While a National Union of Students report this week highlighted students' growing financial problems, an even more worrying development was revealed in statistics on student suicides. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of students taking their own lives rose by 50 per cent in just four years. According to the data, between 2007 and 2011 the number of suicides by male students in full-time higher education rose by 36 per cent, from 57 to 78. In the same period, the number of female student suicides almost doubled, from 18 to 34. The statistics were released via a Freedom of Information request by Ed Pinkney, the founder of Mental Wealth UK, a student mental health charity. The release came in the same week as the Daily Mail reported on 3 December on the death of Toby Thorn, who took his life after racking up thousands of pounds in student debts.

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