The week in higher education – 21 December 2017

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

December 21, 2017
Week in HE illustration (21 December 2017)

The UK government delivered an early Christmas present for the sector when it announced that a pilot scheme to liberalise student visa rules would be extended to an additional 23 universities. The pilot, which streamlines the application process and allows graduates to stay in the UK in search of work for six months after the end of their course, involved only the universities of Bath, Cambridge and Oxford, plus Imperial College London, when it was launched in July 2016, triggering accusations that it created a “two-tier system”. Of the 23 new universities, 15 are in the elite Russell Group, but other participants include the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, the University of Reading and Harper Adams University. Will 2018 be the year that the UK government finally drops its hostility towards international students – and gives the sector a helping hand in recruitment?

It was the turn of the Australian government to play Scrooge this week, delivering an A$2.2 billion (£1.3 billion) cut in university funding in time for the festive season. Ministers’ proposal to cap funding for bachelor’s courses at 2017 levels for two years means an effective end to the country’s demand-driven system of admissions, vice-chancellors argued, since any institutions seeking to expand or even maintain their student numbers would see a reduction in funding. The proposals also lower graduates’ student loan repayment threshold. At this time of year, we are often taught to be grateful for what we get – so universities should at least count themselves lucky that the government’s proposals are not quite as harsh as the $2.8 billion cut that was originally proposed.

London often seems to lose the plot when there are few snowflakes in the capital. But last week some people argued that it was snowflakes of a different variety that caused unnecessary strife at one of the city’s universities. In order to reassure students that it would be open despite a modest snowfall, UCL tweeted on 11 December that anyone “dreaming of a white campus” should make their way in as planned. This led to complaints that the message sounded racist and UCL apologised the following day, The Daily Telegraph reported. However, others thought that UCL had melted a bit too easily given that they were just referring to the lyrics from the famous Bing Crosby song. “You really are can anyone be offended by the fact that snow is white? Nobody can change that, get a grip,” wrote Jennie Powell on Twitter.

After months of negative headlines about its vice-chancellor’s pay, what the University of Bath probably didn’t need was a story about spending a couple of thousand pounds on a lavish aerial stunt to deliver its annual peppercorn rent. Unfortunately, that was exactly the tale that emerged last week. According to the Bath Chronicle, the token rent, which it has paid the local council every year since it was granted land in the 1960s, was delivered by a Red Devils skydiver this year as part of a parachute display costing £2,122. The display formed part of Bath’s 50th anniversary celebrations but news of its cost has led to local councillors questioning whether the university should continue to receive special terms on its rent. Bob Goodman, a cabinet member on Bath and North East Somerset Council, said that the peppercorn arrangement should be reconsidered in the “difficult financial situation we find ourselves in”, the newspaper reported.

Did you feel the “youthquake” in 2017? If you work in higher education, the chances are that you probably did, since it is defined as “a significant cultural, political, or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people”, and has now been selected by Oxford Dictionaries as its word of the year, The Guardian reported on 15 December. The term saw a 401 per cent increase in usage year-on-year, driven by the impact of the youth vote in the UK and New Zealand general elections, two instances where leftwingers’ offer of free university tuition had a big impact. Youthquake was chosen from a shortlist of 10 words, also including Antifa (a shortening of anti-fascist), kompromat (compromising information gathered to be used in blackmail, reportedly, against Donald Trump) and broflake (a man who is easily enraged by progressive attitudes that conflict with his views). 

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