The week in higher education – 12 November 2020

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

November 12, 2020

The phrase “How’s yer bum for cracking walnuts?” is a well-known welcome in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, as well as the title of an album by Missing Presumed Dead. But it’s not only post-punk bands who extol the virtues of a powerful posterior. According to The Guardian, research into wombats’ deadly bottoms is being used by the University of Queensland to cultivate artificial insemination technologies. The marsupials’ bums are renowned for being rock-hard and used for everything from plugging the entrance to their burrows to crushing the skulls of enemies. “These are pretty hardy rumps. They are big, and they will get a fair kick in,” said Alyce Swinbourne, an expert in wombats at the University of Adelaide who carried out the research, before explaining how their behinds are also key to wombats flirting and thus mating. “A female will go and bite the bum of a male and then run off, and he has to chase her…It’s very much a part of the ritual.”

The quiz show University Challenge is a British television institution renowned for showing off the immense brainpower of the UK’s brightest students; its host Jeremy Paxman is a British television institution renowned for appearing spectacularly unimpressed by said brainpower. But in recent weeks, prodigious intellect has been upstaged by a new star of the show: Paxman’s lockdown hair. The 70-year-old presenter’s usual short-back-and-sides was replaced by a flaccid, white side-parting in episodes currently being aired, which were filmed during the UK’s first lockdown − and the new look drove viewers to distraction, the Daily Mail reported. “Paxman’s wispy hair looks very soft. Like the dog from the Dulux ad,” tweeted one. While another wondered: “Is Paxman modelling his new look on Yeats? The horn-rimmed, owl-like spectacles, the louche, flopped wedge of white hair? He looks full of years. Still sailing to Byzantium. Never quite arriving.”

At a time when student-university relations are already fractious, the University of Manchester scored a dazzling own goal last week when it took the idea of “lockdown” a little too literally. Students living at the university’s Fallowfield halls of residence awoke one morning to find they had been caged in by “prison-like” fences erected around the complex’s buildings, according to the BBC and other outlets. The fences were torn down as hundreds of students protested. The university later apologised, and said that the fencing had been erected as a response to concerns about security on the site. Dame Nancy Rothwell, Manchester’s vice-chancellor, said that she had launched an inquiry into the decision, and the way in which this was communicated to students, the Manchester Evening News reported.

The idea of post-qualifications applications has been floating around UK higher education for years, but has its time finally come? Admissions service Ucas has proposed that students could apply to university once they have received their exam results and would not start their first year until January. Under an alternative option, students could apply prior to receiving their results but would not have to choose from their offers until afterwards. Under this idea, the first term would be in the autumn, as is the case currently. Both options are designed to address concerns over the inaccuracy of predicted grades, which universities heavily rely on in offer-making at the moment. Full details of Ucas’ proposals are due to be published in coming weeks, while Universities UK is also expected to produce its own suggested options.

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