The week in higher education – 23 August 2018

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

August 23, 2018

Last week’s A-level results day in the UK meant, once again, another round of celebrities boasting about how they had flunked their exams but it didn’t matter because they were now millionaires. Indeed, the annual tweet by Jeremy Clarkson was predicted by many Twitter users before it arrived on 16 August. “Don’t worry if your A-level grades aren’t any good. I got a C and two Us. And I’m sitting here deciding which of my Range Rovers to use today,” the former Top Gear presenter told his 7.1 million followers with his trademark modesty. While Mr Clarkson’s familiar advice left many Twitter users unimpressed, it was at least understandable given his results. Less so was “Judge” Rob Rinder’s Evening Standard column on 19 August, in which the barrister and TV star recalled his own A-levels day as a “teenager of limited academic ability”. Decrying the “toxic myth that a CV full of starry A levels is the automatic gateway to a future of eternal joy”, he cited Sir Richard Branson, Sir John Major and other non-graduates as proof that “more than exam results, what matters most is…character” and “your capacity to be resilient and determined”. Strangely, Mr Rinder’s amnesia about his own results (claiming that he “hadn’t the foggiest what I got in my own exams”) also caused him to omit the fact that his grades were good enough to reach the University of Manchester, where he gained a double first – an achievement that was arguably important to opening doors in the legal profession.

An extraordinary Twitter spat between two UK universities gave a glimpse into the rivalries that normally stay hidden on A-level clearing day. Responding to a tweet on 16 August by Leeds Beckett University, which explained that students could now apply to the institution using the Alexa virtual assistant, the University of Essex joked back that its unreliable voice recognition technology might translate the “Leeds Beckett” command as a request to “buy me a leaky bucket”. That led to a lengthy exchange of acid memes between the two institutions, which many saluted as harmless banter, although others felt it to be “snide”, “unprofessional” and “disgraceful”. “This is the new market baring its teeth,” added one commenter.

Toby Young’s lively Mail on Sunday rant about how UK universities have become “left-wing madrassas” illustrated how he might have spiced up board meetings at the Office for Students. Mr Young, who was forced to quit England’s higher education regulator in January after an outcry at his appointment, argued that the “thousands of unfilled places” at UK universities were likely a consequence of the institutions having become “seminaries of politically correct nonsense” that existed “not to disseminate knowledge and promote understanding but to suppress politically incorrect facts and stifle debate”. Unconstrained by OfS responsibilities, Mr Young seems to be enjoying his freedom to highlight academia’s faults. The regulator’s loss is journalism’s gain, it seems.

A University of Oxford professor forced to retire at the age of 67 is suing for loss of earnings of more than £100,000, The Times reported on 20 August. John Pitcher, 69, a fellow of St John’s College and an authority on Elizabethan literature, was made to retire two years ago under the university’s contentious Employer Justified Retirement Age policy, which seeks to “refresh the workforce” and uphold “intergenerational fairness”, according to court papers. Professor Pitcher has argued that 67 is “far too low” and that he “would be able to carry on working, as would many of my colleagues, well into my mid 70s”. The employment tribunal in Watford – the first Oxford age discrimination case to reach this stage, it is believed – was followed with interest by ageing dons as it continued this week.

Sam Gyimah, England’s universities minister, raised a few eyebrows when he gave an interview to the Spiked website in May, during which he upped his criticisms of overly censorious students to complain about an anti-Tory “political monoculture” on campus. But the minister’s generosity to the niche website – which claims that its Free Speech University Rankings indicate an “epidemic” of blacklisting and no platforming at UK universities – has not led to the headlines he might have wished for. In a Spiked opinion piece on 13 August, Mr Gyimah was branded “minister for philistinism” for his recent comment that it was “no longer the case” that the “prime purpose” of the university was the “training of the mind”. “Philistine Sam Gyimah” and his call to make “mental health, rather than learning…the focus of the 21st-century university” provided more proof of the dumbing down of UK higher education, said author Gareth Sturdy, adding that “if Gyimah gets his way, he will accelerate the very processes which are leading higher education into a dead end”.

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