The week in higher education - 29 October 2015

The good, the bad and the offbeat: the academy through the lens of the national press

October 29, 2015
The week in higher education cartoon (29 October 2015)

The University of Leicester “launched” a department of transtemporal studies as the “leading centre for research and teaching into all aspects of time travel”. The utterly hilarious mock announcement came on 21 October 2015, or “Back to the Future Day” – the date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown travelled to in the film Back to the Future 2. As the day progressed, even David Cameron attempted his own Back to the Future gag during Prime Minister’s Questions, meaning that the tyres on this Twitter bandwagon had worn wafer thin by the end of it all.

Consumer watchdog Which? became embroiled in a bitter war of words with universities after publishing the findings of an investigation into information provided to students on their websites. In its 23 October report, Which? said that three-quarters of the 50 UK universities it sampled had failed to make important course information covering issues such as fees, assessment and contact hours accessible online. The watchdog claimed that this failure could contravene consumer protection legislation and went further by identifying three institutions for, in its view, failing to provide 30 per cent of the information required. But the institutions – the University of Huddersfield, Glasgow Caledonian University and Canterbury Christ Church University – hit back. Huddersfield said that it had instructed lawyers to act over the “completely false” allegations, Glasgow Caledonian said Which? had “gone far beyond the remit of a consumer affairs organisation” over the “unsupported” claims, and Canterbury Christ Church said that it was “considering our legal position”. Which?, whose study was limited to websites for a single course, psychology, stood by its findings and said that it would “continue to be the consumer champion, highlighting good practice and challenging bad”.

The prime minister took up a more serious topic on 26 October, when he announced that Ucas would adopt “name-blind” applications from 2017 to tackle racial bias. Writing in The Guardian, Mr Cameron said that major graduate employers had also agreed to anonymise applications “so those assessing applications will not be able to see the person’s name, so the ethnic or religious background it might imply cannot influence their prospects”. He continued that “unconscious bias” against black applicants to universities “is clearly a risk. So we have agreed with Ucas that it will make its applications name-blind, too, from 2017.”

The journalist Harry Mount, a second cousin of Mr Cameron and a Bullingdon Club alumnus like the prime minister, made his own intervention on higher education in The Spectator on 24 October, with an article on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “purge of the Oxbridge set” in his shadow cabinet. “Under Corbyn, the Labour party – once the clever party – has had a brain transplant. It’s out with the Oxbridge and Harvard graduates with first-class degrees; in with the redbrick university graduates,” Mr Mount wrote. His article relied on the assumptions that all Oxbridge graduates are intellectuals, and that only Oxbridge graduates can be intellectuals. The article also contained numerous factual errors – such as suggesting that deputy leader Tom Watson was chosen by Mr Corbyn rather than elected by members and using the term “redbrick” in reference to Victorian civic universities, post-Robbins plate-glass institutions and post-92 universities. But to list all the errors would be as tedious as the article itself.

What could so move UK sector leaders – including University College London provost Michael Arthur and London School of Economics director Craig Calhoun – that they united to record their praise on video? Perhaps it was the lifelong endeavours of a Nobel prizewinning scientist, or a British research project that has led to improvements in the lives of millions? It was actually the lovable Chinese president Xi Jinping, and in particular his “China Dream” slogan, that brought the men together to record interviews for the Chinese site “People Television”, posted on 20 October. Professor Arthur said that his interpretation of the slogan “was that President Xi completely understands the power of education and the sort of education system and the educational attainment that will be necessary to deliver that dream”.  Sourpuss human rights organisations would no doubt bang on about Mr Xi’s China Dream not mentioning academic freedom, but our sector leaders wisely kept their counsel on such subjects while on video. 

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