The week in higher education – 11 January 2018

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

January 11, 2018
Week in HE illustration (11 January 2018)

Few issues in higher education could provoke more than 200,000 people to sign a petition, but the UK government has achieved just this by appointing journalist Toby Young to the board of England’s new higher education regulator, the Office for Students. The petition on change.org claims that Mr Young had once referred to children with learning difficulties as “illiterate troglodytes”, that he had complained that schools having to give access to children in wheelchairs is an example of “ghastly” political correctness, and that he had described state school undergraduates at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as “stains”. Asked about the comments on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on 7 January, prime minister Theresa May said that she was “not at all impressed by those comments” but highlighted that Mr Young had apologised. “He’s now in public office and as far as I’m concerned if he was to continue to use that sort of language and talk in that sort of way he would no longer be in public office,” Ms May said.


Ms May may be reluctant to ditch Mr Young but, as Times Higher Education went to press, she was sharpening her axe for a Cabinet reshuffle that could have significant implications for the UK’s universities. Justine Greening, the education secretary, was widely reported to be on her way out of the job, while Greg Clark, the business secretary, was also tipped to move roles. The fate of Jo Johnson, the universities minister, was also unclear. With battles over international students, post-Brexit research funding and executive pay high on the political agenda, vice-chancellors will hope that the individuals who end up in the top jobs in Whitehall get up to speed as soon as possible.


The death of Ben Barres, the Stanford University neuroscientist who identified the crucial role of glial cells in neurodegenerative disorders, provided an opportunity to revisit an eye-opening anecdote from his past. Professor Barres, who was born Barbara Barres, once recalled the reaction to a seminar that he gave shortly after transitioning in 1997, at the age of 43. “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s,” a colleague was heard to say. This was typical of the rare insight into sexism in the academy that Professor Barres could offer: as an undergraduate, he had solved a maths problem that had confounded the rest of his virtually all-male class, only for his lecturer to suggest that his boyfriend must have done the work, The Atlantic reported.


Reading University alumni have achieved a record-breaking feat on University Challenge ­– but it’s unlikely to be one that they are particularly proud of. A team of celebrity former students became the first in the 55-year history of the BBC quiz to fail to get a single question right, The Times reported on 8 January. They were roundly beaten by Keble College, Oxford, who racked up 240 points without reply. Sophie Walker, leader of the Women’s Equality Party, led the Reading side of anthropologist Anna Machin, the Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games and the botanist and broadcaster Pippa Greenwood. “You have achieved something hitherto unachieved in this series, you got zero points. What a total whitewash,” withered host Jeremy Paxman.


Those in higher education looking for evidence of the “Brexit effect” will have been concerned to see reports of a 19 per cent increase in the number of European Union academics resigning from UK universities in the past year. More than 2,300 EU academics handed in their notice over the past 12 months, according to figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats using Freedom of Information requests and reported by The Independent on 7 January. The University of Oxford reported the highest number of resignations, which saw 230 departures of EU academics last year, compared with 171 in 2014-15. Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokeswoman, described the figures as the “latest sign of a damaging Brexodus”. “Britain’s universities have thrived from having access to talented European researchers, and from years of European cooperation through schemes like Horizon 2020 and Erasmus,” Ms Moran said. “Now all this is being put at risk by this government’s botched handling of Brexit, where we seem to be losing all the benefits of EU membership while keeping the costs.”

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