The week in higher education – 16 August 2018

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

August 16, 2018
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Ferdinand von Prondzynski will step down as principal of Robert Gordon University after a “nepotism scandal” involving a £12 million castle in the Republic of Ireland that is his family home, The Times reported on 9 August. His decision comes after it emerged that he “had a close business relationship with Gordon McConnell, who was appointed as a vice-principal and began work earlier this year”. The pair “did not declare during the recruitment process that they are co-directors of a company” that owned the castle. An internal investigation at the university “found that while rules had been broken and the link should have been declared, it was a ‘genuine omission’”. Professor von Prondzynski said that his “main reason for deciding to step down is to allow RGU to recover from these events”. Other vice-chancellors have been accused of pulling up the drawbridge on job candidates not personally known to them – but none quite so literally.


US higher education must feel like it has long been enjoying the cultural consequences of Donald Trump’s rise to power – but his administration now appears to be taking a direct interest in higher education policy. “The special office headed by Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to and the son-in-law of President Trump, held a meeting…with officials from the [Department of Education], outside higher ed groups and funders of postsecondary research, with accreditation at the center of discussions,” Inside Higher Ed reported on 10 August. “The topic reflects the focus of a new round of rule making recently announced by the department, which wants to rethink the role of accreditors as gatekeepers of federal student aid.” Previous examples in other federal agencies suggest that this might mean appointing a gatekeeper hostile to the sector they oversee, or just getting rid of the very notion of gatekeepers and, moreover, gates.


The UK government unveiled its plan to address a growing homelessness crisis this week. The London School of Economics has also attracted attention for its activity on this issue – although its approach involved using metal armrests on benches to stop people sleeping on them. Students have mounted a petition calling on the LSE to remove “anti-homeless” benches installed outside its library, the Independent reported on 7 August. “The new benches…were recently installed on the university’s campus in central London to reduce the risk of ‘threats and anti-social behaviour’, LSE has said.” LSE master’s student Cara Leavey highlighted the issue on Twitter, saying “rough sleepers used to use the benches at night because it’s one of the only sheltered places around, now they can’t”. An LSE spokesperson said that the institution would “review these measures to determine whether they are appropriate”.


The Sun generated plenty of follow-ups in the national media after its Freedom of Information request to UK universities found on 6 August that “jaunts to Las Vegas and Premier League tickets” were among the things funded by institutional credit cards in recent years – although pride of place went to the £2,184 that Northumbria University spent “as corporate guests at lap-dance club Spearmint Rhino”. “The payment made on a university credit card was reimbursed promptly and in full and that is the basis on which the transaction was authorised. This payment was made at a reception following a corporate event at which Northumbria staff were invited guests,” said a Northumbria spokesperson, not quite managing to clear things up completely. This all led to a “Sun Says” editorial that claimed that “universities serve today as get-rich-quick schemes for top staff”. University staff need credit cards for legitimate expenses, the lap-dancing story comes at a time when higher education’s reserves of public goodwill seem to be being stripped away.


The University of Cambridge is documenting an ugly episode in its history by digitising and making available online images of the confetti, fireworks and eggshells that male students carried to an 1897 street protest opposing women’s rights to gain degrees, the BBC News website reported on 11 August. Putting the items, previously stored in a box at Cambridge University Library, online “is considered timely as it is the centenary of the first votes for women in the UK”, the BBC said. “University-wide votes to allow women to be conferred full degrees were held in 1897 and 1921 – but were marred with heated street protests, including one in which an effigy of a woman on a bike was publicly mutilated in the Market Street area. Women did not gain full membership of the university until 1948.” Sian Collins, a Cambridge archivist, said: “It’s not an eyewitness description or a newspaper report – these were actual items used to victimise people, things that don’t normally survive.”

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