The week in higher education – 10 January 2019

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

January 10, 2019

Theresa May has been warned by prominent Conservatives, including two former universities ministers, that cutting tuition fees in England “would dent social mobility, benefit the wealthy and put some institutions out of business”, The Observer reported on 6 January. Justine Greening, the former education secretary, plus Jo Johnson and Lord Willetts, “spoke out amid mounting expectations that a review of higher education could back a cut to the maximum fees of £9,250 a year for some courses”, while the prime minister is “being warned privately she will never be able to secure support for a cut in fees in the Commons”, the newspaper added. Ms May gave Ms Greening and Mr Johnson the push from the Department for Education after they tried to block her plans for the review. The dispatched duo, both ardent Remainers, are genuine believers in the current fee regime – but vengeance and the wider Brexit battle may provide extra spurs in their efforts to drive the review into its grave.

A cut in England’s university tuition fees would bring another consequence – a decline in police funding. Following on from last year’s news that the University of Northampton will spend £775,000 over three years on a team of Northamptonshire police officers to patrol its campus, The Times reported on 5 January that 27 universities are “paying for police officers to protect students from criminals in fear that they have become easy targets”. The newspaper added that “at least £1.2 million will be spent in the present academic year alone”. Given the hit that police forces’ budgets have taken from austerity, will chief constables be joining Universities UK in lobbying against a fees and funding cut?

When two Newcastle University students agreed to go a blind date for a feature in their campus newspaper, they probably did not expect the resulting tale to get much attention. But that was before their differing interpretations of the evening went viral. According to Danny Tapper, his meeting with Sophia Kypriotis was enjoyable and involved a “good chat”, but he conceded that they probably were not very compatible and had “quite different” views on politics. His date, however, had a somewhat stronger reaction, the Daily Mirror reported. She said that he was a Tory with “archaic, sexist views” and that she eventually had to “escape” by pretending a friend’s house was her own. “He called feminism ‘toxic’ which allowed women to behave as ‘slags’. I found this very insulting and I was actually very offended.” Details of the excruciating mismatch, in student paper The Courier, received thousands of retweets after being posted on Twitter.

The University of Nottingham was rubbing its hands when its research was referenced on prime-time TV – albeit by an obsessive psychopath. As the university’s press office pointed out on Twitter, research by Christopher Conselice, professor of astrophysics, was alluded to in the BBC One crime drama Luther on 2 January. Murderer Alice Morgan, an astrophysicist by background herself, informed Luther – the detective with whom she is infatuated – that since they last met “the universe has got bigger”, with the estimated number of galaxies revised upwards from 200 billion to 2 trillion. This was a reference to a 2017 paper by Professor Conselice. The press office might have added that the actor who voiced those lines, Ruth Wilson, is a Nottingham graduate. Reviewers have previously described Luther as “beyond silly” and “incredibly stupid”. However, the sarcastic reaction from Idris Elba’s Luther to the fascinating astrophysics findings – “great” – probably expresses public attitudes to much university research with stark realism.

The UK government is in serious need of a chief historical adviser because it does not have enough experienced civil servants to help it avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, according to the head of the British Academy. Alun Evans said that he was shocked to discover during a recent advisory session run by the academy for young civil servants that nobody had been working for the government at the time of the 2008 financial crash, The Times reported. “In a post-Brexit world, we will really need people who have worked in departments for, for example, 20 years,” he said. “If you want to understand the big question of the day, there’s a strong case for every government department to have a source of historical advice, a chief historical adviser.” Perhaps top of the list for advice might be the Department for Education, which sometimes could do with someone to remind ministers of mistakes they made the previous week, let alone 10 or 20 years ago.

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