The week in higher education – 25 January 2018

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

January 25, 2018
Week in HE illustration (25 January 2018)

Union members have voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action over changes to UK higher education’s biggest pension scheme, it was announced on 22 January. Eighty-eight per cent of University and College Union members who took part in the ballot voted to walk out after Universities UK proposed scrapping the element of the Universities Superannuation Scheme that guarantees a certain level of pension income in retirement. UCU said that, if a deal cannot be reached, 14 days of strike action would be held at the 61 institutions where ballots met the required 50 per cent turnout threshold, starting with a two-day walkout on 22 and 23 February. Talks were continuing as Times Higher Education went to press

Exams in mathematics and computer sciences at the University of Oxford have been extended in a bid to close a growing gender gap in attainment, The Sunday Times reported on 21 January. Undergraduates were given 105 minutes to complete papers last summer, rather than 90 minutes, “with no change in length or difficulty of questions”. The change was aimed at reducing “the undue effects of time pressure”, which is thought to have a greater impact on female students. Oxford said that third-year students showed an improvement in their marks on the extended tests. “While there is clearly more progress to be made, the departments will continue with the longer papers for the foreseeable future, monitoring the exam data carefully,” the university said. Maths has one of the biggest gender variations in results at Oxford, the report said: only 21.2 per cent of women on the course graduated with a first last year, compared with 45.5 per cent of men.

Students at the University of Exeter have been left feeling like muggles after Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling scotched a long-standing rumour that a pub in the city inspired a location in the novels. The author is an Exeter alumna – having achieved a 2:2 in French with Greek and German – which fuelled speculation that The Old Fire House had served as the inspiration for wizarding pub The Leaky Cauldron. However, after the pub was sold for a figure believed to be between £3 million and £4 million, Ms Rowling took to social media to dismiss the link, Plymouth newspaper The Herald reported on 17 January. “If you want real fantasy, go to an estate agent,” she tweeted. “Never visited this pub in my life.” With a price tag like that, let’s hope that the buyers weren’t relying on trading on the Potter link to recoup their outlay.

“Universities luring millennials to communism, leading don warns”, thundered The Times on 17 January. While the story didn’t quite back up the headline, the don in question was Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, and the cause for concern was a poll that found that 24 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds viewed big business as a serious danger to the world, compared with 9 per cent who were worried about communism. What Professor Figes did say was that the drive for balance and moral relativism in universities and textbooks risked minimising Stalin’s crimes. “That sort of moral equivalence is unhelpful, because even the ‘good’ things [Stalin] did were done with such rates of murder and destruction that they can’t be counted as good,” Professor Figes said. Writing in the New Statesman, Stephen Bush questioned how helpful it was to poll young people about their views on communism. “It’s a lot like asking young people which is a bigger threat: a mugger or a sabretooth tiger. Sabretooth tigers are extinct so quite clearly the correct answer is ‘the mugger’,” he wrote.

By the time they have finished their theses, many doctoral students are glad to see the back of their dissertations. Not so Grace Lindsay, a neuroscience postdoc at Columbia University, who tweeted on 17 January that she had had the text of her thesis printed on a scarf. Online, scholars seemed intrigued rather than horrified by the prospect of having a dissertation as a weight around the neck (albeit a lightweight one) long after they have completed it, retweeting the post about 24,000 times. However, as a mode of scholarly communication, the scarves do have their limitations: Massachusetts-based manufacturer Litographs says that it can squeeze only about 30,000 words on to the garment, so preparing the accessory demands some careful editing.

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