The week in higher education – 25 October 2018

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

October 25, 2018

Problems encountered by overseas academics trying to get visas for UK-based international conferences are a dire warning of how the country could lose its “competitive edge” in science if Brexit is mishandled, according to the Wellcome Trust. The Guardian reported that a major conference on psychiatric genetics held in Glasgow was marred by absences resulting from the failure of important contributors and attendees to gain visas. The disappointment in Glasgow came on the heels of similar problems dogging a global health symposium held in Liverpool earlier in the month, the newspaper said. “The current system is creaking and causes problems for researchers [outside Europe] who want to travel to conferences to share their ideas, but is also a foretaste of what could come in future if we try to expand the current system to cover citizens from countries in the European Economic Area,” said Beth Thompson, Wellcome’s head of UK and European Union policy.

The German budget supermarket chain Lidl has helped to shake up the food retailing market in the UK in recent years by introducing shoppers to the delights of low-price luxuries such as lobster and prosecco. Now it hopes to drive up interest in a taste that has fallen somewhat out of favour: modern language study. The company is helping to fund studies in German at the University of Oxford by offering to sponsor a master’s degree student and competition prizes for undergraduates, The Daily Telegraph reported. It was welcomed at Oxford as something that will raise the profile of German, which seems to have been bearing the brunt of the declining interest in modern languages among UK students. “The perception of German is that it is harder, that it is less useful and it is something for the elite. In many schools, it’s only an option for the top set,” said Vicky Gough, the British Council’s schools adviser. Lidl may find, however, that changing that perception through a bit of funding at one of the UK’s most elite universities isn’t quite as easy as building a new supermarket on a brownfield site on the edge of a small town.

Widening participation staff in universities face a new challenge: genetics. A King’s College London study reported by The Times found that 57 per cent of the distribution of offers made by higher education institutions to prospective students could be explained by genes. The research also showed that genes explained half the difference in whether or not a person went to university at all, as well as the grades they got when they arrived. However, admissions staff should not give up all hope, according to Ziada Ayorech, one of the King’s researchers, who said that the interplay between genes and society was complex. “People hear ‘genetically influenced’ and think ‘genetically determined’. But it’s not like that,” she said.

An edition of a student newspaper at the University of York had to be recalled after it caused uproar by using its back page to ask students to send in naked pictures of themselves. The “Send Nudes” call in York Vision was intended to “combat poor-quality, low-effort naked pictures”, with the newspaper pledging to make “comments on what they like and tips on how to up your game”, according to the online version of the request, which has since been taken down, The Times reported. Nouse, a rival student newspaper, later published an apology from York Vision, which said that the page had been intended “to advertise a future lighthearted piece”. The last laugh, however, went to someone commenting under the Times report who suggested that the student hacks should be told that “no nudes is good nudes”.

Harvard University’s affirmative action trial started out last week as an examination of whether its admissions policies unfairly hurt ethnically Asian applicants to the benefit of black students. But the opening testimony illuminated the party that was long suspected to be receiving even greater favourable bias: white applicants from well-connected families. Data presented at the trial in Boston show that Harvard, over a six-year period, admitted 2,460 Asian-American students – almost as many as its 2,693 black and Latino admissions combined. But it also revealed that 2,680 white students admitted during the six years were athletes or had family ties to a donor, an alumnus or a university staff member. The trial is expected to last for another week.

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