The week in higher education – 1 October 2020

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

October 1, 2020

It has been some years since freshers’ week was the bacchanalian free-for-all that some sections of the media still imagine, with rowdy drinking games often frowned upon rather than encouraged. The reputation of the much-vaunted week has now taken another hit with UK students facing fines for wild parties and socialising outside their immediate “bubble” of between six and 13 people, The Sun reported. New students even face penalties for sleeping with someone from outside their household, with one university chief saying that “expectations of behaviour” will be very different in the current climate, the paper said. With the potential for romantic liaisons now severely reduced and social opportunities limited to a few quiet drinks with newfound pals, will the stereotypes attached to freshers’ week finally begin to wither away?

US students locked down on campus have been sent more than toilet rolls, tinned foods and detergent in their emergency care packages, with would-be medics receiving animal brains, hearts and eyeballs for their online anatomy classes. Lafayette College neuroscience student Maggie Ledwith was among those to receive the unusual shipment of sheep organs for her dissection classes, now taking place on her kitchen worktop, MailOnline reported. Elsewhere across the country, medical students have been carving into the dead bodies of frogs, cows and piglets at home, with many sharing their experiments with their TikTok followings. While some students seem excited by the ad hoc arrangements – one from the University of Southern California claimed she had “learned more about medicine in two weeks than I did in two years of college” – lecturers seem less enthusiastic. One professor asked to supervise the anatomy classes via Zoom called the remote lessons a “second-best substitute”.

The University of Hull has no shortage of talented, high-profile alumni – with sociologist Anthony Giddens, ex-deputy prime minister John Prescott and BBC broadcaster Jenni Murray among its famous graduates. Those illustrious names, however, likely mean little to today’s Instagram generation, so it was perhaps understandable when model and YouTube personality Ambar Driscoll was asked to give this year’s clearing campaign a shot in the arm, with the 22-year-old singing the praises of the Humber university as she posted a picture of herself in graduation garb to her 297,000 Instagram followers. As Vice pointed out, however, the social media influencer attended the University of Exeter, so was probably not too qualified to comment on the merits of a different institution some 300 miles away. Hull was not the only UK university to use influencers with a tenuous connection to their operations, Vice pointed out, although it wondered if it caused difficult-to-reach students to end up in higher education, was that an entirely bad thing?

Impending doom often facilitates a last hurrah of some kind, and it seems this may have been on the minds of a group of crustaceans about 100 million years ago before they were trapped in tree resin. The suggestion comes via the discovery by scientists from the UK and China of the world’s oldest animal sperm found inside a crustacean encased in amber. The researchers, from Queen Mary University of London and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing think that the animals were having sex just before being trapped in the tree resin during the Cretaceous period. According to the Queen Mary academics, finding fossilised sperm is extremely rare, with the oldest known example being a mere 17 million years old. The study, published in Royal Society Proceedings B, is important for research into the evolutionary history of a mode of sexual reproduction involving “giant sperm”.

Perhaps one morale-boosting activity for students locked down in their halls of residence could be adapting classic Christmas songs as part of a campaigning bid to ensure they are allowed home for the festive period. “All I Want For Christmas Is (To Leave) U(ni)” is this writer’s poor attempt, but it looks as though students will have plenty of time to come up with better alternatives. Despite barely being in October, the issue is squaring up to be a major decision for UK governments, with scientists worried that students travelling back to family homes will spread the virus to more vulnerable groups. Desperate not to be labelled Scrooges when the time comes, politicians also seem to be carefully laying the ground to blame somebody else if they do issue such a diktat. The UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden said “if we all pull together and observe these new rules” then it would be possible for students to go home at the end of term.

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