The week in higher education – 1 November 2018

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

November 1, 2018

Students at a university in South Africa have created what is purported to be the world’s first brick made from human urine, The Guardian reported on 25 October. According to the article, the bio-brick was produced after urine collected from specially designed urinals at the University of Cape Town was mixed with sand and bacteria. Growing bio-bricks with urea has been tested synthetically in the US, the newspaper said, but Cape Town believes that this is the first time actual human urine has been converted into a brick. Dyllon Randall, a senior lecturer in water quality engineering at Cape Town, who supervised the project, said that the process by which the bio-bricks are made is similar to the way that seashells are formed and does not require high-temperature kilns. Their flush of excitement could also require a redefinition of what it means for someone to be “bricking it”, a slang term that refers to a slightly different bodily function.

Increasing the chances of finding a well-paid husband is unlikely to be the first thing on the minds of female applicants to university in 2018. However, that outcome does occur as a consequence of women getting a degree, as The Times highlighted following an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. According to the analysis, a degree means that women earn much more over their lifetime (although still less than male graduates), helping to increase family income. But this income is also boosted because, on average, female graduates also end up with husbands who are paid £100 a week more than the average worker. The newspaper led its article on this aspect of the analysis with a play on the opening line from Pride and Prejudice, but perhaps it is an angle that deserves to stay in the time of Jane Austen.

The Harry Potter series is likely to have spawned dozens of academic courses worldwide attempting to lure in millennials perusing lists of modules. The latest appears to be a course at a university in India that focuses on the implications for law, according to a report on The Guardian website. The course – created by an assistant professor at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata – asks students to consider the legal aspects of topics such as characters’ use of “unforgivable curses” (torture, murder and possession of another person) and the rules of the broomstick-based sport quidditch. But it also encourages students to apply the themes of discrimination in the book to social divisions in modern India. It can’t be long before “Studying the crash: what Gringotts Bank tells us about the state of the world economy” or “Polyjuice potions for beginners” also come to a curriculum near you.

Selling caviar sounds like a lucrative – if slightly surprising – income stream for universities facing increasing restrictions on public funding. But a US institution’s sturgeon farm has run into controversy after an academic was accused of personally profiting from trading the cured roe. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said that Douglas Peterson, professor of fisheries at the University of Georgia, had added a “consulting fee” to each sale of caviar, according to the Athens Banner-Herald. The academic and his wife have also been accused of using a university boat for leisure activities at their Florida holiday home. Professor Peterson, who has announced his retirement, has denied any wrongdoing and blamed a misunderstanding. “I genuinely understood and believed for over seven years that what I did was acceptable, and the university always received fair market value for its caviar,” he said.

The chair of a university’s governors has said that UK higher education institutions that benefited from the slave trade should contribute to a £100 million fund to support ethnic minority students. Geoff Thompson, chair of the board at the University of East London, has sent Freedom of Information requests to other providers to see if they received money from the slave trade between the 16th and 19th centuries, the BBC reported. Mr Thompson, a former karate world champion, said that institutions should follow the lead of the University of Glasgow, which set up a “reparative justice” programme after calculating that it may have benefited from gifts worth up to £198 million connected to the slave trade. The new fund could help students who could not afford to graduate, Mr Thompson said.

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