The week in higher education – 13 September 2018

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

September 13, 2018

Sam Gyimah set out to signal a new, more measured tone in his speech at the Universities UK conference, seeking to differentiate himself from the commentators who imagine courses such as economics have mutated into Corbyn­omics.

So it was that The Guardian reported appreciatively on 5 September on the section of Mr Gyimah’s speech in which he said: “Our best universities are not ivory towers. Still less are they ‘left-wing madrassas’, as one controversialist chose to describe them.”

That served as comment on Toby Young’s recent Mail on Sunday article on universities, the source of the phrase “left-wing madrassas”, and on Jo Johnson, Mr Gyimah’s predecessor, who unsuccessfully sought to make the “controversialist” a board member at England’s higher education regulator, the Office for Students.

Has Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell set a precedent by donating her $3 million (£2.3 million) prize money from a leading science award to charity?

The UK astronomer, who was controversially overlooked for the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974 in favour of her older male collaborators, won huge praise on 6 September for handing over the entire winnings from the Silicon Valley-funded Breakthrough Prize to help female graduate students, as well as refugee and ethnic minority students, become physics researchers.

Dame Jocelyn’s generosity flagged up, however, some of the less altruistic uses of Nobel windfalls – now worth about £855,000 – by her male scientific peers, several of whom have invested their winnings in real estate, motorbikes and even allegedly a croquet lawn, though others have admittedly also made sizeable charitable donations.

Will future Nobel winners now, however, feel more obliged to give up their sums thanks to Dame Jocelyn’s admirable example?

After years of upward pressure on vice-chancellors’ salaries, downward pressure is the new thing. The University of Bath announced on 4 September that its next vice-chancellor will be Ian White, currently a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cambridge.

The appointment of Professor White comes after his predecessor, Dame Glynis Breakwell, announced her retirement. It is fair to say she attracted a degree of adverse comment for her £468,000 pay package, which made her the UK’s highest-paid vice-chancellor.

Professor White will be paid a salary of £266,000 plus an additional £37,000 in lieu of pension contributions, which is roughly – and probably not coincidentally – in line with the UK average, according to Times Higher Education’s latest executive pay survey.

The sector’s highest-paid staff may soon learn the lesson Dame Glynis should have heeded: sometimes it pays to be average.

Donald Trump has lashed out at many over the “RIGGED WITCH HUNT” – known to those who speak in lower case as the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller – looking into allegations of collusion between his election campaign and the Russian government.

But developments this week offer a reminder that the University of Stirling has a largely unacknowledged role in his troubles. Joseph Mifsud, a former politics teaching fellow at Stirling who was said to have started an enormous ball rolling by telling former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos that the Russians had obtained “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, has been named as a defendant in a lawsuit by the Democratic National Committee, which is suing Russia, the Trump campaign and Wikileaks for interfering in the 2016 election.

“The DNC said in its court documents that he was the only defendant who had not been served with the complaint because he was ‘missing and may be deceased’,” The Times reported on 10 September. Stirling must have wanted someone whose global connections could really leave a mark – mission accomplished if you count whiteboard flowcharts of the Trump-Russia inquiry in FBI headquarters.

Filling out the fiendishly tricky passwords provided for free wi-fi connections has defeated many smartphone users visiting campuses. But those travails seem positively easy compared with the code set by a Chinese university’s canteen, which is requiring students to solve a complex calculus equation to access their protected network, Mail Online reported on 7 September.

The equation is printed on a laminated sign next to the menus at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Jiangsu province, the Mail said. One student said it should take users about 30 seconds to solve the further maths conundrum, the answer to which is the first eight digits of pi.

“If a student can't solve it, he/she should really study harder,” said Ji Jun, deputy director of the university’s food administration department.

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