The week in higher education – 20 September 2018

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

September 20, 2018

Hannibal Lecter’s famous line that he once ate a public official’s liver with “some fava beans and a nice chianti” has been much quoted, but what was the meal’s nutritional value? It probably wasn’t that good, according to a study on the “calorific significance” of cannibalism, which was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize on 13 September for “research that makes people laugh and then think”. Its author James Cole, principal lecturer in archaeology at the University of Brighton, found that human flesh was not as nourishing as meat provided by other animals, with a 10-stone (64kg) person offering only 32,000 calories compared with 163,000 calories from a deer. Our prehistoric ancestors are unlikely to have hunted their neighbours, as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, although they may have enjoyed a human snack if someone had died of natural causes. 

The days of a typical student diet consisting of toast and Pot Noodles are long gone, if one UK supermarket is to be believed. Waitrose was roundly mocked after it published a list of “student store cupboard” essentials that included a £4.35 jar of rose harissa paste, a £3.15 bottle of tamari soy sauce, and a £2 tub of Bouillon powder, The Times reported on 12 September. The list was described as “a starter kit for the fledgling cook about to fly the nest”, but parents took to social media to tell the upmarket retailer to “get real”. Increasing maintenance funding for undergraduates is at the top of the agenda for England’s post-18 funding review, but taxpayers will have to dig deep if these tastes catch on.

One fresher at the University of St Andrews wouldn’t bat an eyelid at the prospect of spending £4.35 on rose harissa paste – probably because she would send the housekeeper out to do the weekly shop. The Sun reported on 10 September that “Britain’s poshest student” was hiring 12 staff, including a maid, butler, housekeeper and three footmen, to help her through her time at the Scottish institution. The Indian billionaire’s daughter, who was said to have bought a mansion to avoid having to brave living in student halls, will also have a private chef, a chauffeur, a house manager and a gardener. The maid’s responsibilities will include waking the student, while all staff will be required to open doors for their boss “wherever possible”, according to advertisements posted earlier this year. The roles are said to pay about £30,000 a year.

Donald Trump’s vitriolic Twitter attack on a George Washington University study on the Hurricane Maria toll in Puerto Rico went further than his usual accusation of “fake news”. Instead, the US president claimed on 13 September that the independent study was “done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible”, BBC News reported. Without evidence, he added that “3,000 did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico”, claiming that this death toll was “bad politics”. Two days later, another tweet took aim at the scientific method used by “GWU Research” to calculate the official death toll, which included those who died in the aftermath of last year’s disaster rather than simply those killed during the storms. “FIFTY TIMES THE LAST ORIGINAL NUMBER – NO WAY!,” bellowed the president, who instead suggested that the “6 to 18 deaths” reported when he visited the island territory in the clean-up was a more robust figure.

Having spent months analysing the fine detail of the Universities Superannuation Scheme, the Joint Expert Panel finally delivered its report on whether there is a better way to reform UK academia’s main pension fund. The answer? One suggested in the 112-page report, published on 13 September, is increasing staff contributions by an extra 1.1 per cent to 9.1 per cent of salary while employers would hike their payment by 2.1 per cent to 20.1 per cent. That would allow USS members to retain the current defined benefits scheme up to £55,000 of salary – the key issue that triggered 14 days of walkouts in February and March. While staff who manned the picket lines may feel vindicated by the proposal, which relies on more optimistic assumptions than the 2017 valuation, it still requires employers, the USS trustee or the Pensions Regulator to sign up to it, too.

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