The week in higher education – 18 April 2019

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

April 18, 2019
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“A 29-year-old computer scientist has earned plaudits worldwide for helping develop the algorithm that created the first-ever image of a black hole,” the BBC News website reported on 10 April. Katie Bouman created an algorithm that rendered the image of a black hole captured by the Event Horizon Telescope. “She started making the algorithm three years ago while she was a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” the BBC said. In a Facebook post that shows her as she loaded the image on to her laptop, she wrote that she was “watching in disbelief as the first image I ever made of a black hole was in the process of being reconstructed”.

City University of Hong Kong made a pig’s ear of the opening ceremony for its new veterinary centre when it was accused of killing animals before it had even begun to tend and care for any creatures. The South China Morning Post reported on 12 April that the university came under fire for performing a traditional ceremony in which a roast pig is carved at the launch of the centre, which has yet to treat any animals. After an outcry from animal rights activists, the university has urged all departments to consider cancelling such ceremonies and other “outdated rites” at future celebrations. The SCMP said critics claimed that the centre “had killed the pigs before curing other animals”. But perhaps the vets were going to cure the pigs – in the culinary sense, that is.

The philosopher Roger Scruton has finally gone too far for the Conservative Party. After an interview with New Statesman in which he made a series of what the government called “deeply offensive” comments about Islam, China and George Soros, Professor Scruton – a fellow at the University of Buckingham and a visiting professor at the University of Oxford – was sacked from his unpaid position as chairman of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission on 10 April, The Guardian reported. In the interview, he claimed that Islamophobia had been “invented” by the Muslim Brotherhood to stop discussion of a major issue and reiterated his views that Mr Soros controlled an “empire” in Hungary. In response, Professor Scruton, who had been called a champion of free speech by James Brokenshire, the communities minister, after an earlier controversy, said his remarks had been “taken out of context”.

Fulham Football Club is experiencing an unprecedented amount of attention in the US. Not because Americans are sorely disappointed by the team’s recent relegation from the Premier League, but because a professor at the University of Southern California has sued the state after being banned from using his Fulham fan number plate on his car, the BBC News website reported on 10 April. The California Department of Motor Vehicles said the letters “COYW” on his personalised plate could be construed as racist because they stand for “Come on You Whites” – a Fulham fans’ chant. Jonathan Kotler, an associate professor of journalism, said he had explained to officials that it “was just a shirt colour”. Professor Kotler added: “I pointed out that many clubs in Britain are known by their colour – the blues, the clarets. Nobody thought the Liverpool reds were communists.”

UK universities have tabled an increased pay offer for staff for the next academic year. After a meeting with unions on 11 April, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said its new offer increases the pay rise “envelope” to about 1.5 per cent, enabling boosts to the lower paid of up to 2.5 per cent. Unions want a deal that would equate to 6.1 per cent. Paul Bridge, the University and College Union’s head of higher education, said the offer was not “sensible” because it failed to catch up with previous years of below-inflation pay deals, “nor does it commit to meaningful action on the gender pay gap, casualisation and workloads”. Ucea chair Mark E. Smith said he hoped that a deal could be reached at the final meeting on 30 April.

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