The week in higher education – 29 March 2018

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

March 29, 2018
Week in HE cartoon 29 March 2018

Another TV show inspired five University of Manchester students to pursue a different type of career – which has landed them with jail terms of up to 15 years each. The undergraduates sold more than £800,000 worth of drugs on the dark web to fund a luxury lifestyle, comparing themselves to the Breaking Bad character Walter White, The Guardian reported on 21 March. The men used their ill-gotten gains to party in the Bahamas, Jamaica and Amsterdam before they were caught by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Ringleader Basil Assaf, 26, got 15 years and three months behind bars, while his four conspirators got terms of between seven and 12 years. Sentencing the five, Judge Michael Leeming said: “As intelligent men, you will each appreciate the misery that is caused and contributed to by people like you.”

Some students have been known to fill time between lectures catching up on the latest episodes of Coronation Street, EastEnders or Neighbours, but now they have the opportunity to spend their actual contact time on a soap opera set. A new degree in continuing drama production is due to start this autumn at the University of Central Lancashire, complete with a mock set featuring a pub and newsagent. The set has been built at Uclan’s Preston campus for the two-year fast-track degree course, which will also provide access to a functioning television studio, the Daily Mail reported on 23 March. With theatre and film degree courses now common, a soap opera course should be no surprise, but it may only be a matter of time before it gets lumped into the “Mickey Mouse” category of courses that some newspapers like to pour scorn on.

It may sometimes feel like changing gender stereotypes in science is an uphill battle but some positive signs of progress have emerged in research that suggests children are becoming more likely to draw women when asked to depict a scientist. The meta-analysis, published in Child Development, looked at 78 separate studies dating back to the 1960s involving children from nursery age up to the age of 18. According to the research, in studies up to 1977 fewer than 1 per cent of children chose to draw a woman when asked to draw a scientist but, in studies from 1985 to 2016, that became 28 per cent, reported Inside Higher Ed. Co-author Alice Eagly, professor of psychology at Northwestern University, said that children still drew more male scientists “but that is expected because women remain a minority in several science fields”.

Union leaders were left unconvinced by a UK university’s claim that axeing hundreds of academic jobs would help it to drive up standards of teaching and research. The University of Liverpool said that allowing more than 220 academics to leave under a voluntary redundancy scheme would enable it to “increase the pace of the improvements already taking place”. But Martyn Moss, a regional official for the University and College Union, said that “any sensible university” would consult properly with staff and students before making changes on this scale. “We are unconvinced that getting rid of more than 200 valuable and experienced teaching and research staff is the best approach to try and improve rankings for teaching and research,” he said.

At least the Home Office has managed to see sense over the case of two Durham University academics who faced deportation from the UK for having spent too much time conducting fieldwork overseas. Ernesto Schwartz-Marín, an anthropology researcher, and his wife, Arely Cruz-Santiago, a researcher in the university’s geography department, had been told that they had 14 days to leave the UK. The Mexican-born couple, who moved to the UK more than a decade ago, spent 270 days working with victims of gang violence in Mexico, using their expertise to build a DNA database to help locate the missing. Home Office guidelines state that non-EU migrants cannot spend more than 180 days outside the UK during their visa period. But the department reversed its position after more than 71,000 people signed a petition urging civil servants to reconsider, and the couple have now been granted indefinite leave to remain.

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