The week in higher education – 14 June 2018

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

June 14, 2018
Week in HE cartoon 14 June 2018

As director of fair access to higher education in England, Les Ebdon was portrayed by the Tory-leaning press as an enemy of the Establishment who would ruin Russell Group universities by forcing them to admit more working-class students. In retirement, however, the former University of Bedfordshire vice-chancellor has been admitted to the Establishment himself, receiving a knighthood in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. There was also a knighthood for Chris Husbands, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, although a citation stating that this was for “services to higher education” left it unclear whether the gong honoured his career as an academic leader or the fortitude with which he has served as chair of the controversial teaching excellence framework. Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, was appointed a dame, as was Angela McLean, professor of mathematical biology at the University of Oxford.

“What we need is a large consignment of very hard drugs,” said Adrian Edmondson’s Vyvyan Basterd in an episode of the 1980s BBC sitcom The Young Ones. It’s all too easy to imagine that this is an attitude that would be shared by the majority of today’s students, but new polling suggests that this would be mistaken. A survey conducted by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the University of Buckingham, published on 12 June, found that 71 per cent of 1,059 full-time UK undergraduates had never taken illegal drugs during their time at university, and that only 6 per cent had done so in the past week. Some 62 per cent of respondents felt that universities should take a tougher stance on students who use illegal drugs. Sir Anthony Seldon, Buckingham’s vice-chancellor, is trying to make his the UK's first “drug-free” campus, perhaps motivated in part by how his student experience of smoking a joint during a reading week on the Norfolk Broads left him feeling like he was “going out of my mind”.

If any further demonstration of the enduring role of class and snobbery in British society were needed, it could be found in the shock-horror response to the revelation that more people had applied to appear on the hit dating television show Love Island than had sought entry to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. “What is happening to us?” asked a despairing Dan Walker, with the television presenter adding three distressed emojis to his tweet for extra effect. Even the prime minister, Theresa May, was asked for her take, although she, to her credit, admitted that she had never watched the programme. Mercifully it was not long before some voices of sanity entered the debate, highlighting that only a limited number of people meet Oxbridge’s sky-high academic entry requirements, while the sole prerequisites for appearing on Love Island seem to be being single and looking good in swimwear.

Bill Gates is using his considerable wealth to tackle poverty and disease – but he still has enough spare change to give a book to every university graduate in the US. The Microsoft founder announced on his blog that he was gifting a free download of Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling to the 4 million students who complete their courses this year. Until his death last year, Professor Rosling was professor of international health at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Describing the book as being “packed with advice about how to see the world clearly”, Mr Gates added that he hoped graduates would “learn to think, and act, factfully”. And while graduates will surely be grateful for the freebie, they will no doubt know from their degree-level education that “factfully” is not a real word.

Graduates of English universities should pay an interest rate of only 1.5 per cent on their student loans – about a quarter of the current rate, a parliamentary committee said on 11 June. The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee said that the current interest rate level, which is based on the retail price index plus 3 per cent, meant that repayments were more expensive for people in middle-income jobs such as nursing than they were for high-paid lawyers or financiers, who pay off their debts more quickly. It advocated a switch to the 10-year gilt rate. “This would mean reducing the interest rate from around about 6 per cent today to 1.5 per cent,” said Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, the committee chair.

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