The week in higher education – 21 December 2023

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

December 21, 2023
Cartoon: A man at Bristol University holding a paper marked 'God Save the King' says to a woman 'We won't stand for it!'
Source: Nick Newman

Do you remember that proud moment at the end of your graduation ceremony when you stood to sing the national anthem? Us neither, but it has been a tradition at the University of Bristol, which has now, according to The Sun, “gone woke” and axed the rousing finale after students complained that God Save the King was “irrelevant” and “offensive to some”. “It’s a bit old-fashioned to have it played at a ceremony supposed to be celebrating the achievements of the individual student,” noted one law student. That decision has not gone down well with the deputy prime minister, Oliver Dowden, who posted online: “If Bristol University are too ashamed of their British heritage, presumably they no longer want to be subsidised by British taxpayer?” A spokesman said the university routinely updated aspects of its graduation ceremonies, and the anthem would be played when a member of the Royal Family is present at a degree ceremony – in other words, never.

Barring an unlikely outbreak of violence by Cornish separatists, the University of Exeter must have thought it was on safe ground when it signed an insurance waiver related to war-induced damage. That has proved a mistake, however, after an insurance company successfully argued that it should not have to foot the repair bill for damage caused by the controlled detonation of a 1,000kg bomb in February 2021. The device that was dropped by the Nazis in 1942 had remained buried on the edge of Exeter for nearly 80 years before it was unearthed by construction workers, who called the bomb disposal unit. Despite the passing of time, the Court of Appeal in London agreed with Allianz that war was the “proximate cause” of the damage to a nearby student accommodation block and that the Munich-based insurer did not need to pay out given the “war exclusion” clause in its contract.

The University of Birmingham has pulled the plug on an event to discuss Israel and Gaza after watermelon emojis were included on advertising materials. Depictions of the fruit – often in the colours of the Palestinian state – have become a symbol of solidarity with Palestine since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, with protesters displaying watermelons when the flying of Palestinian colours has been banned. Academics at Birmingham’s law school said the “staff-student listening session” was rescinded over concerns that the fruit images indicated that it would not “provide the safe and objective space for discussion that was intended”. A University and College Union spokesperson said the cancellation “represents an interference with the right to freedom of expression” and would have a “pernicious ‘chilling effect’ on free speech as staff ‘self-censor’ out of fear of being viewed negatively by their employer, their students, and the wider public”.

With Barbie back in fashion thanks to Margot Robbie’s summer blockbuster movie, Mattel has been wasting no time rolling out new versions. But none of the nearly 100 versions of Barbie related to medicine or science would fare well in a professional setting given their flagrant breaches of lab and hospital safety, a BMJ study has found. Barbie’s love of wearing high heels in a clinical setting was one alarming problem identified in the journal’s Christmas issue, while her refusal to tie her hair back would have hampered her performance as doctor, dentist or lab technician. Other than three ophthalmologist dolls, science Barbies were also unlikely to adopt a medical or scientific specialty, which might limit her career chances, the study adds, suggesting the creation of a neurosurgeon Barbie. “With an expanded line, Barbies can be inspirational to young girls’ views of surgeons and scientists, rather than allowing these careers to be aspirational,” the authors add.

While no Christmas dinner is complete without Brussels sprouts, the maligned vegetable is far from everyone’s favourite. But frying or roasting the festive staple to make it more appealing – as suggested by Jamie Oliver and others – may destroy the vegetable’s incredible nutritional qualities, say experts at Newcastle University. To avoid the loss of glucosinolates – an important molecule that interacts with proteins associated with repairing damaged DNA and promoting cell death in cancer tumours – sprouts should be steamed, said Kirsten Brandt, senior lecturer in food and human nutrition. “If you roast them, they are being broken down during the cooking, so steaming is the one [cooking method] that gives most of these tasty and healthy compounds in the final product,” she said as a side note to new research that showed that regularly eating the festive side dish of carrots could help reduce the risk of cancer by almost a quarter.

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