The week in higher education – 14 September 2017

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

September 14, 2017
Cartoon 14 September 2017

“Woman trapped in window trying to retrieve poo after Tinder date” ran the BBC’s account of a story that lodged in the U-bend of the world’s imagination. University of Bristol postgraduate Liam Smith invited the woman back to his house after a date and – as most informed members of society know by now – when the woman went to the toilet, she found that her poo would not flush. She then tried to throw the “offending package” out the window – only to find that, owing to a quirk of design in Mr Smith’s house, the window did not open on to the garden but rather on to a narrow gap between it and another, non-opening, window. After she confessed her embarrassing predicament to Mr Smith, he lowered her into the window to extricate the excrement, only for her to become stuck upside down in the gap, necessitating rescue by the fire brigade. Mr Smith, being an impoverished postgraduate, could not foot the £300 bill for a new window himself, so he shared the story on a crowdfunding site. Thus an incident that must already have been mortifying for the woman was amplified to the world. She did retrieve the poo, though.

Dame Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, is also in a difficult position. Whether being a regular target for the Daily Mail is preferable to being stuck upside down in a window trying to fish out your own poo is a difficult philosophical question. On 8 September, the newspaper reported further developments in the saga over her remuneration, after former Bath member of staff Joe Rayment obtained details of her expenses claims in a Freedom of Information request. “Along with the £8,000 on washing, ironing and other housekeeping duties, the university spent £1,286 on electricity at the [rent-free] house, £3,848 on gas, £390 on water and sewerage and £3,082 on council tax,” it reported. “The vice-chancellor also billed them £279 for cleaning products.” In the eyes of her critics, Dame Glynis’ reputation is tarnished – but her house and laundry are spotless.

Of course, we have Lord Adonis to thank, in part, for keeping this story in the headlines. The former Labour education minister has rarely been far from the news sections and comment pages of national newspapers since he accused Dame Glynis of “greed” over her £451,000 salary. He also irked rank-and-file academics across the UK when he claimed that they enjoyed a “three-month summer holiday” free from research and teaching. Last week, Lord Adonis revealed that every morning he now gets an inbox full of messages from academics detailing their work-related activities for the day. With the “three-month holiday” coming to a close, let us hope that the good lord and his correspondents will soon be freed from this routine.

The University of Cambridge is considering scrapping written exams because their students’ handwriting is becoming too difficult to read, The Daily Telegraph reported on 8 September. In a consultation for its “digital education strategy”, the university is looking at allowing undergraduates to use laptops or iPads in their exams following concerns that students are losing the ability to write. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, students routinely have written by hand several hours a day – but now they write virtually nothing by hand except exams,” said Sarah Pearsall, a senior lecturer at Cambridge’s Faculty of History. With handwriting now becoming a “lost art” among students, Dr Pearsall said that many unreadable scripts had to be transcribed centrally, which meant that students had to return to the university in the summer holidays to read aloud their indecipherable words to administrators.

A US college has apologised for urging students to “rub one out” in the hope that masturbation could prevent sexual assault on campus, the Daily Mail reported on 8 September. The Rochester Institute of Technology, in New York, admitted to an error of judgement after a slide from its student orientation programme, “Alcohol and Chill”, that bore the caption “Self-gratification can prevent sexual assault” was shared on social media, the Mail reported. The slide’s main image was the Winnie the Pooh character Roo, with students asked to “think of Roo” – aka “Rub one out” – perhaps one of the more surprising uses of the much-loved A. A. Milne incarnations. Rochester said that its message had been taken out of context and had only addressed options for students if a potential sexual partner should withdraw consent; however, the institution’s president, David Munson, later apologised to anyone who was offended.

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