The week in higher education – 23 November 2017

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

November 23, 2017
Week in HE illustration (23 November 2017)

The headlines for the University of Bath were bad enough when Dame Glynis Breakwell was revealed to be the UK’s best-paid vice-chancellor earlier this year, with wages and benefits totalling £451,000 in 2015-16. Now it has emerged that, prior to Lord Adonis’ furious Twitter campaign on the issue, Bath’s remuneration committee had already voted through a 3.9 per cent pay rise for Dame Glynis, taking her total remuneration in 2016-17 to more than £468,000. The data, obtained by the Bath Chronicle under a Freedom of Information request, was described as “shameless and outrageous” by Lord Adonis, who told The Guardian that Bath urgently needed “new, untainted leadership”. Bath’s communications team will no doubt be praying that Dame Glynis’ 2017-18 pay package doesn’t bring more inflammatory news.

University leaders who wish to avoid looking out of touch would be well advised not to advertise for a chauffeur while seeking to cut scores of academic jobs. The University of Southampton posted the request for a chauffeur caretaker to drive “executives and visiting dignitaries” in the same week that it announced its plans to reduce its academic workforce by between 50 and 75 posts. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that posting the advert was “insulting and shows contempt” for staff facing an uncertain future. A Southampton spokesman explained that having a chauffeur to drive senior staff allowed them to “work while in transit” and stressed that the advert sought a replacement for an existing role. But for rank-and-file staff, the only place this job posting will drive them is up the wall.

The UK’s leading universities hired investigators to “snoop” on the wealth of their graduates, the Daily Mail reported on 20 November. In a front-page story – a welcome return, no doubt, after Chris Heaton-Harris’ Brexit letter – the Mail reported that Russell Group universities had employed wealth-screening firms to research their alumni’s worth and how likely they were to donate. If screening took place without graduates’ consent – or at least a reasonable expectation that this would happen – universities could have broken the law. Universities said that they provided information about their activities online, but the Information Commissioner’s Office has begun an investigation to see if rules have been broken. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education said that the watchdog “supports the view that the tactics used by universities are legal”.

In these troubling times for higher education, the news that researchers are being sent dog excrement would usually be a cause for serious concern. But academics in the University of Bristol’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine are actively soliciting donations of puppy poo as part of a project that explores how the E. coli bacterium moves between the environment, animals and humans. “If you have a young puppy and would be able to provide us with some poo, please do get in touch,” said Kezia Wareham, a master’s student at Bristol Veterinary School. While it is a relief that Bristol’s researchers are not being hounded in a revolting way, it is perhaps staff in the university’s post room who deserve sympathy.

Two South Korean universities are testing a somewhat creepy solution to the country’s plunging birth rate: courses on which students are obliged to date their classmates. Seoul’s Dongguk and Kyung Hee universities have launched the courses in response to concerns that young Koreans are “too busy these days and clumsy in making new acquaintances”, said course leader Jang Jae-sook, according to The Daily Telegraph. As part of the course, students must date three classmates for a month each, with homework including going on dates and broaching topics such as jealousy and conflict. Western universities seem to fare quite well in student matchmaking simply by running bars selling alcohol at rock-bottom prices, although this also leads to its fair share of clumsiness.

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