The week in higher education – 3 January 2019

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

January 3, 2019

There’s nothing like a bit of outrage about students posing naked in a university library to, erm, justify publishing pictures of students posing naked in a university library. The latest example appeared on 25 December, the ultimate slow news day, on The Sun’s website, which described how students at the University of Oxford’s Exeter College had been “blasted” for stripping off in the college’s historic library and posing for a picture with only mortar boards and books to ensure their “modesty”. However, it seemed that the only detractors were a couple of anonymous students who complained that the group was stopping others from working in the library. Curiously, the article featured several other snaps of naked students posing for a charity calendar from a story that seemed completely unrelated – apart from the fact that they were also students without clothes.

After a swastika was drawn over a “Happy Hanukkah” sign on a resident assistant’s door at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, student Nicole Parsons placed in the window of her room a sign that read “FUCK NAZIS YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE”. A week later, a residence director emailed her to suggest that she take down the sign “so that all students can be a part of an inclusive residential experience, as well as having a respectful environment to be a part of here on our campus”. Not a wise move on a number of fronts, one being that the incident was reported by BuzzFeed on 23 December and subsequently by an abundance of international media outlets. The university said in response that it “rejects Nazis” – the UMass Amherst communications team are renowned for the ferocious strength of their public statements – but is “sensitive to the use of profanity”. However, it added that the email “should not have been sent” and that the sign “may remain up”. Although Ms Parsons had already removed it from the window, she said that she would “keep the sign forever”.

The chairman of a student Marxist society at Peking University, one of the two most prestigious institutions in China, has been seized by police, according to reports on 26 December. Qiu Zhanxuan was on his way to an event he had organised to “mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of the founder of modern China, Mao Zedong, whose legacy remains deeply contested”, reported Reuters correspondents, whose description of the instigator of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution suggests that they graduated from the UMass Amherst school of understatement. “I saw a black car parked by the gate and seven or eight men in plain clothes lifting [Mr Qiu] by his arms and legs and forcing him into the car,” a student said. Reuters noted that the move comes in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s tightening control over campuses and at Peking University in particular. Observers said that there has also been a quelling of “leftist” activity in the run-up to the 40th anniversary of the beginning of China’s process of economic reform.

BBC News online reported on 25 December that the return of a British-Iranian academic to the UK, after his arrest and detention in Iran, had been confirmed by the Foreign Office. Abbas Edalat, a professor in computer science and mathematics at Imperial College London, was detained in Tehran in April 2018 after reportedly attending an academic workshop. An Iranian news agency had previously “reported that Professor Edalat was part of a ‘network’ of British spies whose members had been identified and arrested”, the BBC said. A group founded by Professor Edalat, the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, described his detention as “a case of misinformation and misunderstanding by the Iranian security apparatus”.

Could UK universities be going the way of US campuses in paying for their own police forces? That could arguably be one implication of the University of Northampton’s decision to spend three-quarters of a million pounds over the next three years on a team of officers to patrol its new campus. A Freedom of Information request reported by the BBC News website on 27 December revealed that reported crime levels at the university had reached a six-year high in 2017-18, the year before it started paying officers to patrol its new Waterside campus. Northampton said that the “trailblazing partnership” with the police – first revealed in October – means that it will be the UK’s first dedicated university police team. Maybe it won’t be long before universities, which thanks to higher tuition fees have arguably escaped the worst of austerity Britain, start funding other public services damaged by cuts.

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