The week in higher education – 26 April 2018

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

April 26, 2018
week in he 26 april

The atmosphere in the University of Bristol’s Arts and Social Sciences Library is clearly too heated to harbour any “student snowflakes”. There have been “reports of actual shouting matches over sought-after seats in the crowded library”, the Bristol Post website reported on 19 April. Demonstrating the ever-deepening commitment to news-gathering in local papers, the “story” originated with a tweet from student Rob Angel, who had said: “Just seen a full blown argument between two students over a seat in the library. The end is near!” The Bristol library account tweeted in response: “We would urge our students to resolve all chair-based disputes peaceably, and to try one of our many other excellent study centres.”

A “growing number of weed-themed classes” are springing up on US campuses, as more states liberalise their laws on marijuana, the CNN website reported on 20 April. Despite federal law still classing marijuana in the same bracket as heroin, “a handful of determined professors have stepped up, without textbooks or well-trod academic territory, and created courses to try to ensure that the next generation is prepared to match the public’s interest”, it said. “Think about it: If you graduated from law school 10 years ago, you couldn’t study this, because the reforms hadn’t happened yet”, said Douglas Berman, the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble professor of law and creator of the Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform Seminar at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law. It is unclear whether Professor Berman was deploying a grow-lamp metaphor in his call for lawyers to bring “more light, rather than heat, to these conversations”, but such classes will surely continue to be a draw.

“Why do young men worship Jordan Peterson?” asked the BBC Three website, omitting the phrase “certain types of” from the headline on its article about the “neatly dressed Canadian professor” who is “coalescing a youth movement around personal responsibility, marriage, and children”. The University of Toronto professor of psychology, who first made headlines in 2016 after releasing YouTube lectures railing against his institution’s policy on “political correctness” and stating his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns, has made an even bigger splash with his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. BBC Three noted the support that the book has picked up from the world’s biggest YouTuber, Pewdiepie, and that some of his supporters call themselves “lobsters”, an “ironic reference to the first chapter in [Professor] Peterson’s book, in which he presents his ideas on social hierarchies”. It also noted that Leonor Gonçalves, a research associate in neuroscience, physiology and pharmacology at UCL, has said of Professor Peterson’s views: “Believing that it is ‘natural’ that some people are ‘losers’ because that’s what lobsters do can have dire consequences.”

The Financial Times interviewed a professor now seen as an “enemy of the state” by authorities in China and Hong Kong. Benny Tai, associate professor in the University of Hong Kong’s department of law, “says he has become the victim of a Cultural Revolution-style denouncement campaign since suggesting, at an obscure forum in Taiwan last month, that independence would be one option for semi-autonomous Hong Kong if the Communist regime in China collapsed”. Forty-one pro-Beijing legislators in Hong Kong signed a letter calling for him to be sacked because his “irresponsible” remarks could lead to “great bloodshed” on the scale of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the newspaper said on 23 April. Dr Tai, already facing trial for public order offences for his part in organising the Occupy protests several years ago, said that Beijing’s campaign against him was designed to deter others from speaking freely. “Young academics need jobs and promotions,” he said, “so why will they choose sensitive subjects?”

The switch to seeing “students as consumers” has often been lamented by academics in English higher education – now those running universities may have reason to join the chorus. “Universities could face compensation claims for millions of pounds as it has been revealed that the first 1,000 students have joined the class action to claim compensation from universities for teaching time lost during the recent strike action” over proposed cuts to Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions, ran the press release issued on behalf of law firm Asserson on 24 April. Where there’s blame from 1,000 people, there’s a claim – as this is a “sufficient number of students to apply for a Group Litigation Order”. Shimon Goldwater, a senior solicitor at Asserson, said: “No other service provider would get away with charging for 25 weeks of a service and cutting that to 22 with no price reduction.” Having to pay about £500 compensation each to 20,000 students would cost a university £10 million, he added.

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