The week in higher education − 20 February 2020

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

February 20, 2020
Oxford cartoon

The decade-long run of Oxbridge-educated UK science ministers came to a conclusive end last week, with a former supermarket manager reportedly set for the role. With Michelle Donelan handling universities, Amanda Solloway – who joined the Sainsbury’s trainee scheme after leaving school and who worked in HR before becoming Derby North MP in 2015 – was tipped to take the science brief. The choice appears an unusual one given the academic credentials of previous science ministers, for whom a first-class degree was almost expected. “I don’t have a degree. I don’t really have A-levels to talk about, but I do have common sense and a business background,” said Ms Solloway in her maiden speech, The Sunday Times reported. It also mentioned that her husband Robert has been banned from running a company for 11 years after being disqualified by the government department she now works for.


The University of Oxford is used to being chastised for its dismal record on state-school admissions, but its anodyne neighbour snaffled the headlines this week, after figures revealed Oxford Brookes University admitted a higher proportion of privately educated students than most UK institutions. Oxford Brookes also has the widest gap between the number of state-educated students it admits and benchmarks produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency that model what an institution’s student body should look like, The Guardian reported. Only 68 per cent of students at the former polytechnic came from state schools in 2018-19, against a benchmark of 91 per cent, while the University of Oxford admitted 61 per cent from state schools, compared with a benchmark of 73 per cent. Next week: expect Oxford Brookes to get a roasting for failing to improve ethnic diversity among students.


The “OK, boomer” retort used to dismiss the views of anyone on social media over the age of 35 might be ageist and lazy, but is it really that offensive? Very, some believe, with University of Oklahoma professor Peter Gade allegedly telling students that “calling someone a boomer is like calling someone a n--”, the student newspaper OU Daily reported. His university president Joseph Harroz clearly disagreed, sending out a university-wide statement calling the comparison “fundamentally offensive and wrong”. “The use of the most offensive word, by a person in a position of authority, hurt and minimised those in the classroom and beyond,” fumed Professor Harroz, according to Time. Professor Gade later sent a grovelling email to beg forgiveness. “I made an inexcusable mistake this morning in class with my choice of a word. I was wrong. I am sorry,” his email reportedly said. “Use of this word is inappropriate in any − especially educational − settings.”


Donald Trump is not the only president in the US to have been tied to a controversy involving a sex worker: the leader of a US university has resigned after being arrested in a prostitution sting. William Bynum, president of Jackson State University in Mississippi, was arrested and charged with procuring the services of a prostitute, false statement of identity and simple possession of marijuana, according to local paper The Clarion-Ledger. Police also arrested the director of the university’s art galleries, along with 15 other people. Jackson’s police chief raised the possibility of a multistate prostitution ring but said the sting did not reveal evidence of human trafficking. Thomas Hudson, who was special assistant to Bynum and chief diversity officer at Jackson State, has been appointed acting president.


Scotland’s beautiful, mountainous landscape is certainly a draw for international students, but it proved too enticing recently when a group of feckless overseas students decided their trek to the top of Ben Nevis could not wait until Storm Ciara had passed. Without a map, and having made the decision to scale Britain’s highest peak while wearing trainers, the hikers became stuck – requiring a major rescue operation in winds of up to 80mph and temperatures as low as minus 20C, The Times reported. The walkers were eventually rescued by a 22-strong expedition by the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team. “It was sheer stupidity, they were a bunch of idiots,” said John Stevenson, the rescue team leader, who added that the men in their twenties and based in Glasgow, “didn’t have a scooby” about mountaineering.

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