The week in higher education – 21 March 2019

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

March 21, 2019
week-in-he-21-march-2019

The familiar debate about whether the Boat Race is still a “student” sports event has started early after six-times world champion James Cracknell made the University of Cambridge’s team. The double Olympic gold medallist will become the event’s oldest competitor when, at the age of 46, he takes his seat in the Light Blues boat for the four-mile race on the River Thames on 7 April. The legendary rower, who hung up his oar in 2006, qualifies because he is taking a master’s in philosophy at Peterhouse, The Times reported. For many readers, Mr Cracknell’s presence was further evidence that the Boat Race has lost its way. “Should be genuine students vs genuine students,” said one, while another argued that organisers “shouldn’t bother advertising this as the university boat race any more – it’s simply a bunch of internationals on both sides”. That said, even Mr Cracknell’s biggest critics couldn’t deny that the arrival of one of Britain’s greatest oarsmen to the varsity race will bring extra drama to next month’s event.


Student activists at Sarah Lawrence College – one of the US’ priciest universities – came under scrutiny after calling for free laundry detergent in their demands to tackle racial injustice. In a nine-page manifesto submitted during a sit-in protest at the New York institution, where tuition and boarding fees total $71,000 (£53,598) a year, activists demanded free meals “including vegetarian, gluten-free, vegan, halal, and kosher options” for all students, along with free housing and laundry supplies, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported. The last request was, for some, proof that over-entitled students had lost touch with daily life, but it perhaps isn’t as ridiculous as many have claimed, with a weekly laundry run likely to cost students at least $800 over the course of a four-year degree, excluding detergent costs.


The luxurious home of the University of Bath’s vice-chancellor was, for many critics, the epitome of the unjustified largesse showered on higher education leaders. So it is perhaps unsurprising that Bath has put the five-bedroom house – where Dame Glynis Breakwell lived for 15 years – up for sale for almost £3 million. Proceeds from the sale will be reinvested in the university estate, the BBC reported. Meanwhile, De Montfort University has announced that part of the building where its recently departed vice-chancellor Dominic Shellard lived rent free in a three-bedroom apartment will return to general university use, following his sudden exit last month, Leicestershire Live reported. It seems that the days of the opulent official residence may be coming to an end.


Affirmative action in admissions is a topic that makes regular appearances in courts in the US, but could it be a matter of time before the UK sees similar legal battles? According to The Times, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge are reporting an increase in Freedom of Information requests from affluent parents trying to discover why their children are rejected. It comes against the background of high-profile examples of children from disadvantaged areas winning entry, such a state school in east London where about 40 pupils received Oxbridge offers. One private school headteacher told the newspaper there was a “perception that some students are starting to be ‘reverse discriminated’ against. At some point there will undoubtedly be legal challenges, and if one of them is successful the floodgates will open.” Of course, such legal recourse probably wasn’t available to the millions of working-class kids who missed out on Oxbridge places in the past, but let’s not let that get in the way of a juicy High Court case.


A professor in China appears to have set a rather unusual task for his students on an internet and new-media course: add at least 1,000 new friends on the social media platform WeChat. The bizarre assignment at Henan University of Economics and Law was set as part of a module on social media management, according to the BBC. It came to light after students contacted Chinese media about the task, with one posting: “I’ve had WeChat for many years and only have some 100 friends [crying emoji]. Everyone is a nervous wreck.” According to the BBC, a teacher at the university said that “what we’re saying is that afterwards, when these students go looking for work, they will have the basic skills for this type of social media operation”. Perhaps that it is taking the modern obsession with employability in higher education a little far.

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