The week in higher education – 3 March 2022

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

March 3, 2022
Source: Nick Newman

Politics students in Italy will soon be taught “assertive body language” by a clinical sexologist, if the latest scheme of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi bears fruit. The 85-year-old media mogul will also lecture at the Universitas Libertatis, which will be run from his 60-bedroom Villa Gernetto in Lombardy. Aside from Mr Berlusconi and the sexologist Sara Negrosini, faculty will include Mario Baccini, a former government minister who will teach finance and who told The Times that the institution’s mission was to “provide training for the future generation of politicians, something political parties no longer do”. Enrolment will cost about €1,000 (£835), with many courses taught online. Mr Berlusconi’s ambitions to found a university stretch back to at least 2010, when he announced plans to open a “University of Liberal Thought”. At the time, he said his friend Vladimir Putin would be among the lecturers.

What does it take to force the resignation of university finance boss found to have behaved in a way that is “abhorrent in a modern workplace”? Not the finding that Muir Sanderson, chief financial officer at Imperial College London, had bullied two colleagues: that happened back in 2020, and he stayed on after news of the disciplinary proceedings emerged later the same year. Even when a ruling by the Information Commissioner’s Office forced Imperial to publish the report detailing the allegations last month, Mr Sanderson insisted that he was “trying to learn the lessons of that period”. Last week, after the local University and College Union branch passed a second vote of no confidence, Mr Sanderson finally said he would step down – but he won’t leave until August, alongside Imperial president Alice Gast, who was also found guilty of bullying. Imperial said Mr Sanderson had “put the college in a stronger position financially and strategically”, but it seems few tears will be shed among rank-and-file staff on his departure.

Soaring above the rivalry between experimental and theoretical physicists is Alexey Galda, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago and leading competitive wingsuit flyer. He set a new world record last year, flying 4,973m at 192mph in a wingsuit he developed himself. On paper, Dr Galda’s research focus is on electronic and magnetic systems. In the sky, he says his mathematical training helps him fly further and faster. The Russian national studied for his PhD at the University of Birmingham, where he developed a taste for paragliding. After the move to Chicago, he considered becoming a pilot before deciding it was a “little too boring”, he told The Times. He is hoping to win gold at the World Parachuting Championships in October. “The realisation that you can apply some of these scientific techniques to this sport to do better, that ignited the competitiveness in me,” he said.

It is often observed that the ingenuity and determination some students display in cheating would have served them well if applied more legitimately. The starkest illustration comes from the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College in Indore, India, where a medical student resorted to having a skin-coloured Bluetooth earpiece surgically implanted into their head. Local media reported the student had enrolled 11 years ago and failed to pass finals many times. The ancient arms race between candidates and invigilators seems to be at the cutting edge in India, where competition for college places and graduate jobs is often fierce. Last September, five candidates were caught sneaking into an exam centre with a Bluetooth device and mobile phone secreted in a flip-flop, which resulted in the rest of the cohort being banned from wearing shoes or socks. If only they had used their heads.

For eye-popping revelations about the impact of casualisation on junior academics, look no further than an inquiry currently being held by the Australian Senate’s Economics References Committee. Creative writing tutor Hayley Singer told parliamentarians she had received a gift voucher as remuneration for serving on a PhD panel at one university, and claimed that the university routinely used vouchers to pay guest lecturers and “industry professionals”. Meanwhile, former Monash University tutor “Greg”, who testified to the committee under a pseudonym, said managers kept the wages bill down by “coercing” casual staff to misclassify tutorials on their time sheets. “The core function of a university…is being described as an ‘other required activity’,” he said. Liberal Party senator Paul Star said: “I would hope that our universities are teaching substance over form, to be frank, and that should apply to the timesheets as well as critical thinking.”

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