The week in higher education – 30 May 2019

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

May 30, 2019

There were tears from Theresa May as she announced her plan to resign as Conservative leader and trigger a leadership election that will select the UK’s next prime minister – but few tears were shed in the higher education sector, given the nature of her influence on higher education policy. Ms May’s statement on 24 May further erodes the terrain for the review of post-18 education that she personally established. The report from the review’s panel, expected to recommend a cut in tuition fees to £7,500 and perhaps a realignment of funding in favour of higher-cost science and engineering subjects, was still expected to emerge before her departure as Times Higher Education went to press. But the prospects for implementation of the panel’s recommendations look, to put it euphemistically, “uncertain”. Universities are also likely to be buoyed by the increased chance of liberalisation of the overseas student visa regime that Ms May’s exit creates. As home secretary and prime minister, she deployed tactics of intractable refusal to compromise – the same ones that doomed her Brexit strategy and forced her exit.

“A senior lecturer in mental health at King’s College London has been filmed at a Brexit Party rally calling a Remain activist a “f***ing traitor” and poking a Union Jack flagpole in his face,” The Times reported on 23 May. Niall McCrae, author of The Story of Nursing in British Mental Hospitals, was queueing for the rally in London and in a video posted on Twitter was “seen verbally abusing Femi Oluwole” and shaking the hand of a man who had thrown water at Mr Oluwole, it added. King’s said that it was aware of complaints and the issue was being “dealt with as a priority”. At a previous Brexit Party rally, Nigel Farage had informed his audience that university lecturers were left-wingers guilty of “brainwashing” their students and marking down those who support Brexit. Whatever else he has done, Dr McCrae has contradicted the stereotype about universities bandied around by the party that he supports – and in the most spectacular fashion.

The apparent domino effect in universities and countries pushing against big journal subscription deals shows no sign of abating after another US institution decided to end its bundled arrangement with publisher Elsevier. According to Inside Higher Ed, Louisiana State University will end its “big deal” at the end of this year. It follows similar decisions not to renew bundled subscription deals by other institutions such as the University of California system, Temple University and Florida State University. Stacia Haynie, LSU’s provost, said in a statement that “dramatic increases” in subscription costs had made the deal unsustainable. LSU will instead allocate $1 million (£785,000) to subscribe individually to a smaller number of Elsevier journals on a one-year contract basis.

One of the feared consequences of increasing undergraduate fees to £9,000 in English universities was that it would lead to whole disciplines shrinking if they fell out of favour with students. Fast-forward seven years and, according to a British Academy report, this looks to be a reason why theology and religious studies could completely disappear from campuses. The study says about 6,500 fewer students are enrolled on such courses in 2017-18 compared with 2011-12. The increase in undergraduate fees may have “played a part in deterring prospective students and in pressuring institutions to change the courses they offer for financial reasons”, adds the report. The past few years have seen several universities close or merge their theology and religious studies departments while Heythrop College, the UK’s specialist theological institution, closed its doors last year. If only there had been some kind of warning that this could happen…

The Sultan of Brunei has said that he will return his honorary degree from the University of Oxford, which was already under review following the international backlash over Brunei’s laws proposing the death penalty for gay sex and adultery. In a statement reported by Reuters, Oxford said Hassanal Bolkiah had replied to a request for his thoughts on the review by saying that he would give the degree back. The sultan insisted earlier this month that the death penalty would not be imposed as part of the controversial laws, but still defended their introduction. More than 100,000 people had signed a petition asking Oxford to rescind the honorary law degree, which was awarded in 1993.

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