The week in higher education – 28 February 2019

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

February 28, 2019
Cartoon for Week in HE 28 Feb

Exorcism doesn’t exactly sound like a topic for study at a modern university – outside niche modules in film studies examining The Exorcist – but perhaps it is par for the course if your institution is affiliated with the Vatican. The Pontifical University of Regina Apostolorum’s 40-hour course in “exorcisms and prayers of liberation” has sparked a political row in Italy after the Education Ministry offered it as part of a programme of voluntary training for teachers, the Daily Mail reported. Teachers taking the course can learn how exorcism should be “correctly practised”, hopefully to aid the teaching of religious education rather than dealing with unruly pupils. Since the row, the Education Ministry has said that it might remove the listing from a portal for the programme, although the course is still set to go ahead, the Mail reported.

Elsevier has shrugged off a breakdown in contracts with German and Swedish universities to swell its profits to nearly £1 billion in 2018, its latest financial results reveal. The Amsterdam-based publisher reported an all but unchanged profit margin of 37.1 per cent. It made £942 million in profits on revenues of about £2.5 billion, according to financial results released on 21 February. The results, contained in a wider financial report from Elsevier’s parent company, RELX, appear to show that the publisher has been almost unaffected financially by a series of often acrimonious disputes with universities across Europe, which have sought to negotiate better deals with the publisher on cost and open access.

Brexit has entertained us for what seems like an eternity – but it still has the ability to surprise. A no-deal Brexit may cut off access to the British Library’s digitised archive of Spare Rib, a key second-wave feminist magazine made available to scholars through the Jisc Journals platform, it was reported on 22 February. A blog by Polly Russell, a curator at the library, explained that the archive was made available under a European Union directive that allows cultural heritage institutions to provide access to “orphan works”, those whose copyright holders cannot be identified. But in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the library has been “advised by the Intellectual Property Office that this legal exception will no longer apply” and “we would have to close the resource entirely” – with even a withdrawal agreement potentially not resolving the problem, she added. “Knowledge knows no borders,” some say – but some might have to update their aphorisms to take account of the post-Brexit UK.

While science may have put to bed the most outlandish explanations for how animals got their distinctive characteristics, one mystery yet to be comprehensively solved is why zebras got their stripes. But new research has provided evidence to support the idea that it is to keep disease-bearing flies from landing on them, The Guardian reported on 20 February. Scientists tested the hypothesis by observing flies around zebras, horses and horses wearing zebra-patterned coats. They found that the flies appeared to have trouble landing on the zebras and the disguised horses, suggesting that the stripes might confuse the insects as they make their approach. The findings, published in Plos One, could possibly lead to an explosion in zebra-themed outdoor wear as a way to avoid irritating insects. Either that or zebra crossings might start to take on a dual purpose as a safe haven during heatwaves.

A university has suspended a member of staff after a campus row erupted during attempts to set up a Jewish society. More than 200 students are said to have voted against the creation of the society at the University of Essex, citing objections after the proposal was opened up to them in a poll. Following a backlash, the institution said that the society would be set up regardless, with vice-chancellor Anthony Forster posting on Twitter that antisemitism was “antithetical to the values of the university” and had “no place” on campus. According to newspaper reports on 22 February, posts on the Facebook account of computer science lecturer Maaruf Ali had expressed opposition to the creation of the society, describing it as a group for “Zionists”. Essex confirmed that a member of staff had been suspended pending an investigation, but did not name them.

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