The week in higher education – 18 February 2021

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

February 18, 2021
Cartoon of pig and frog

Many aspects of higher education policy can often feel like a game of ping-pong, with seemingly never-ending discussions about the same ideas being batted back and forth. So perhaps the results of an experiment in the US lead to the conclusion that we don’t even need to put humans in charge of universities any more. According to The Times, the research suggests that pigs could play a simple video game similar to classic bat-and-ball arcade game Pong by using their snouts to move the joystick. Candace Croney, from Purdue University, who worked on the project, said they did not even need treats to complete their gaming tasks, with “belly scratches” being a big motivator if they were frustrated. So even if we do leave humans in charge of running the sector, it’s now clear what they need instead of massive pay packets.

The controversy over the decision to select a Tory peer as the next chair of England’s higher education regulator has continued to rumble on even after his appointment was confirmed. Labour has been calling on Lord Wharton – the former MP who ran Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign – to resign the Conservative whip in the House of Lords “without delay” given his new role. Meanwhile it has also emerged that others interviewed for the post included Sir Ivor Crewe, a former vice-chancellor and president of Universities UK and the Academy of Social Sciences. Sir Ivor confirmed to The Observer that he had been considered for the role and was told he met the “required standard” only for Lord Wharton to be selected by education secretary Gavin Williamson as his preferred candidate. Then again, as the newspaper points out, Sir Ivor did co-write a book, The Blunders of Our Governments, that contained a section on how ministers sometimes put inexperienced people in charge of public bodies, so Mr Williamson was probably just obeying the rule book.

Anyone who has used Zoom over the past year will be painfully familiar with the phrase: “You’re on mute”. But one academic who no doubt wishes he heard those words during a recent class is the National University of Singapore’s Wang Dong, who finished delivering a two-hour lecture only to find that students had not heard anything he had said from eight minutes in. The majority of students eventually left the class following the technical issue, but about 20 stayed on until the end to break the news that the associate professor’s screen froze just minutes into his talk. “Students tried all sorts of things to get his attention by unmuting and even calling his phone number. However, he did not respond and continued with the lesson,” one student commented, according to local news website Mothership. They added that Dr Wang now conducts lectures with his phone beside him, suggesting that at least one person learned something.

Joe Biden may now be in the White House but the culture wars involving universities in the US are seemingly far from over after a Republican in a US state legislature introduced a bill that would survey higher education staff on their political party affiliation. The bill introduced by Jim Carlin in Iowa would survey employees at three Iowan universities on their political leanings, although the personal identity of respondents would have to be hidden in any results, Mail Online reported. It comes in the aftermath of allegations from politicians that universities in the state had suppressed free speech, mainly in cases affecting conservative students. It comes as Iowa is also in the midst of a battle over tenure, with Republicans pushing a bill that would make the state the first in the US to scrap its use at public institutions.

In a scientific breakthrough that proves truth is stranger than fiction, academics have managed to engineer spinach plants that are capable of sending emails. Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology used nanotechnology to transform the vegetable into sensors capable of detecting explosive materials. The carbon nanotubes within the plant leaves then emit a signal, which is read by an infrared camera, sending an email alert to the academics. “This is a novel demonstration of how we have overcome the plant/human communication barrier,” chemical engineering professor Michael Strano, who led the research, told Euronews. While the purpose of the experiment was to detect explosives, the academics believe it could be used to help warn researchers about pollution and other environmental conditions.

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