The week in higher education – 29 November 2018

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

November 29, 2018
Cartoon 29 November

NOW the snowflake police are WHINGEING about the use of CAPITAL LETTERS, the tabloids screamed at us in another story taking a stab at the reportedly delicate demeanour of modern-day students. A memo shared with the Daily Express written by course leaders at Leeds Trinity University’s journalism department advised staff to “generally, avoid using capital letters for emphasis” when setting assignments because it could “generate anxiety and even discourage students from attempting the assessment at all”. “I MEAN IT’S FAIR ENOUGH ISN’T IT?” one Twitter user responded, “EVEN PERFECTLY REASONABLE COMMENTS LOOK WEIRDLY AGGRESSIVE…AND ARE KIND OF DISTRACTING IF THEY’RE WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS.” Is the Express worried that the next generation of journalists will rebel against its weirdly aggressive caps-style emphasis within headlines?

Swansea University has suspended its vice-chancellor, Richard Davies, while an ongoing internal investigation is carried out. In an email to Swansea staff, registrar and chief operating officer Andrew Rhodes said that the dean of the School of Management, Marc Clement, and two other members of staff at the school had also been suspended. Mr Rhodes writes that the matters under investigation “do not concern the academic performance of the university or its financial wellbeing”. A Swansea spokeswoman said: “We can confirm that the vice-chancellor, Richard B. Davies, and Professor Marc Clement have been suspended, pending the outcome of an internal investigation. We are not making any further comment at this stage.”

Matthew Hedges, the British PhD student who was sentenced to life in prison for spying in the United Arab Emirates, has been pardoned with immediate effect. Mr Hedges, a doctoral research student specialising in Middle Eastern politics at Durham University, was detained at Dubai airport in May and held in solitary confinement for five months before being found guilty on 21 November of “spying for or on behalf of” the UK government. Stuart Corbridge, Durham’s vice-chancellor, said that he was “absolutely delighted to learn the news”. “It is paramount that he is now allowed to return home to…his family as quickly and safely as possible. We will…be thrilled to welcome him back to the Durham University community,” Professor Corbridge said.

Before they can consider where the might ply their trade, of course, the current generation of students will first have to find a way to pass their exams. A report in The Sun claims that students at the University of Sheffield have been given permission to skip exam questions if they find them distressing, with no need to explain their “backstory”. It follows an earlier move by Newcastle University advising staff to allow students upset by exam materials to resit or be exempt from assessments. Critics say the idea could stir up even more anxiety, however, by leading students to anticipate that they will be traumatised by material. Others make the reasonable argument that course leaders should probably avoid including “disturbing” material on exams in the first place. For all the mockery, it’s clear that there’s a debate to be had if universities don’t want to put students off learning altogether.

The Universities Superannuation Scheme is to undertake a second valuation after institutions indicated that they were willing to pay more towards supporting UK higher education’s largest pension fund. In an email to USS members on 22 November, the pension scheme announced that it would conduct an additional valuation of its funding position as of 31 March this year. The previous valuation led to a recommendation by Universities UK that the USS’ defined-benefits scheme – under which members are guaranteed a fixed sum in retirement – should be scrapped, triggering months of staff walkouts at UK universities. However, an independent review panel set up jointly by Universities UK and the University and College Union reported in September that the deficit would be £3.5 billion lower if the valuation were rerun in March 2018 – largely because investment returns had been better than expected to the tune of £2 billion. The USS missive confirmed that the fund cannot avoid an increase in contributions, announced in July, which will take effect in April 2019. Staff contributions will rise to 8.8 per cent, up from 8 per cent, while employer contributions will rise from 18 per cent to 19.5 per cent.

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