The week in higher education – 15 March 2018

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

March 15, 2018
Week in HE illustration (15 March 2018)

We thought that we’d all learned a lesson from the case of University of Oxford law graduate Faiz Siddiqui, who tried unsuccessfully to sue the institution for £1 million for “poor teaching” and a subsequent failed career. But one former Anglia Ruskin University student appears to have taken inspiration from his cause, The Sunday Telegraph reported on 11 March. Despite graduating from her international business strategy course with a first in 2013, Pok Wong claims that she has little to show for a “Mickey Mouse degree”. Boasts in Anglia Ruskin’s prospectus about career prospects were misleading, she argued, and she is therefore seeking damages – albeit to the more realistic sum of £60,000 – to cover tuition fees and living costs during her time there. Anglia Ruskin’s lawyers suggested that the university prospectus did not form a “real” contract regarding graduate career opportunities. If she had spent more “time and energy” on job-seeking and less on her campaign against Anglia Ruskin, she may have had greater success in finding an attractive job, they added.

While we’re on the topic, graduates who fail to find a well-paid job on graduating should beware: grown-up children who move back home worsen their parents’ quality of life. A study by the London School of Economics suggests that parent couples – you know, the generation who paid no tuition fees and enjoyed low mortgages – experience a new lease of life once their children fly the nest, with improved marital relationships and time for new hobbies. The return of their “boomerang generation” offspring may therefore be regarded as a “violation” of what is meant to be a freeing and exciting stage in their lives. Data show about one-quarter of young adults in the UK still live with their parents – a figure that has increased year-on-year since records began due to the rising cost of living and housing, and job insecurities. “Everything in my psyche says [that] this young woman should be living independently,” one mother told The Guardian regarding the return of her 23-year-old daughter. We suspect that the feeling is mutual.

Universities have been threatened with another 14 days of strike action during the exam period if the dispute over changes to UK higher education’s biggest pension scheme is not resolved. As Times Higher Education went to press, a week-long walkout was continuing at 65 higher education institutions over changes to the Universities Superannuation Scheme, while talks between Universities UK and the University and College Union continued. The UCU said on 8 March that its higher education committee had sanctioned the additional strike dates between April and June, with the exact dates to be confirmed. Last week, vice-chancellors joined picket lines at the universities of Glasgow, Sheffield and Loughborough, while the universities of Oxford and Cambridge joined those stating that they would be prepared to accept additional risk in order to protect members’ pensions, increasing the pressure on UUK to do a deal.

The University of Oxford has fallen over itself with apologies after a female cleaner was photographed scrubbing a chalked “Happy International Women’s Day” slogan from the steps of the Clarendon Building, while male security guards watched. The image was posted on Twitter by Sophie Smith, associate professor of political theory at University College, Oxford, who added: “What an image for #IWD.” The university replied to the tweet saying that it was “deeply sorry for this and for offence caused”. Professor Smith said that she appreciated the apology, but that the priority should be fair working conditions for all Oxford’s staff. “Can you please make sure that the woman asked to remove the message receives a heartfelt apology, a warm cup of tea, the rest of the day off and, along with all our precarious staff, good enough pay to live in this city,” she replied.

“Torture the data, and it will confess to anything.” So said Ronald Coase, the Nobel prizewinning economist; and it’s a saying that might well be applied to the debate about executive pay in UK universities, in the wake of a front-page story in The Guardian on 12 March that proclaimed: “Revealed: how vice-chancellor pay eclipses the public sector”. The story, which focused on how university leaders were typically paid significantly more than the heads of their local authorities and NHS trusts, came just weeks after analysis by economist Michael Nisbet, reported in Times Higher Education, suggested that vice-chancellors were not, in fact, overpaid. Mr Nisbet’s study compared vice-chancellors with the leaders of major public agencies, based on the number of staff that they employed. Questions have to be asked about whether vice-chancellors’ pay is justified, but it’s a sad day if the UK’s ambition for the University of Cambridge is for it to have a status comparable with Cambridgeshire County Council.

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