The week in higher education – 14 November 2019

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

November 14, 2019
The week in higher education – 14 November 2019

It has been a busy few weeks in the journalistic genre of horror stories about student accommodation. “Students at the University of Bath had to temporarily stay in the city’s YMCA while permanent accommodation was found for them,” the SomersetLive website reported, before the Daily Mirror reported on 11 November that Nottingham Trent University students were left “humiliated” after they were forced to shower in portable bathrooms behind bins for about two weeks. A fault in tanks led to dangerous bacteria levels in the water system at a hall of residence, it added. Criminology student Ellie Hunt said: “As a girl I felt humiliated having to leave my accommodation, cross a public road to get the keys and then shower outside, behind bins in the early hours of the morning.”

“Fewer than half of students consistently support freedom of speech and two-fifths favour censorship and no-platforming of controversial speakers, research has shown,” according to The Times on 11 November. The report was based on a poll of about 500 undergraduates by centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange, which asked for views on “blocking speeches” by Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons, the Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, and the feminist writer Germaine Greer. Actually, 52 per cent disagreed with the idea of preventing Mr Rees-Mogg from speaking on their campus. When YouGov carried out a larger survey of around 1,000 students on the issue last year, there was a curious lack of media attention. That is probably explained by the fact that YouGov, inconveniently, did not find “any evidence that students are more hostile to free speech than the general population”.

A team of academics at the University of Florida won a $2 million (£1.6 million) prize in an artificial intelligence competition, beating more than 100 teams from around the world – only to find their university claiming that it should pocket the money. The day after a team led by electrical and computer engineering professors John Shea and Tan Wong won the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency contest, an email – not a congratulatory one – arrived from the Florida administration, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on 8 November. “Please understand that if Shea and Wong convert university funds to personal funds,” stated the email from a university lawyer to a lawyer representing the university’s faculty union, “they will be subject to personnel action and possibly other more serious consequences.” The university changed its rules after the same team of academics won a $750,000 prize in 2017. “We put our blood and sweat into this – working 14- or 16-hour days sometimes,” said David Greene, a PhD student in electrical engineering who is a member of the team.

Offbeat methods for helping students to cope with the stresses and strains of modern campus life are not unusual; these days you’d be hard-pressed to find a campus without “therapy” pets of some description, for instance. But a university in the Dutch city of Nijmegen has something rather more out-of-the-ordinary for students to take time out: an open grave to lie in. The Louteringsgraf – located behind the student chapel at Radboud University – can be booked for up to three hours, according to the Daily Mirror, but has been so popular that students say there is a waiting list. The aim of the grave – which to create some comfort has a mat to lie on with the words “stay weird” emblazoned on it – is to allow students to think about their own mortality, something that the project’s founder says is often taboo for students.

The principal of a Scottish university who was suspended from his post amid reports of a row over the payment of rent has resigned. Andrew Atherton, who had been head of the University of Dundee only since the beginning of this year, was suspended from his £298,000-a-year role in September pending an investigation following a dispute over the payment of rent on a university property, according to local newspaper The Courier. Complaints by members of staff over their treatment by Professor Atherton have also emerged, the paper said. Dundee said in a statement that the former deputy vice-chancellor at Lancaster University had “shown a commitment to excellence” during his short tenure but it had “become apparent that the university’s vision for its future and the values it holds” were “different to the aspirations of Professor Atherton”. The university now faces yet another leader search less than a year after its previous principal, Sir Pete Downes, retired after about a decade in charge.

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