The week in higher education – 4 April 2019

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

April 4, 2019
Cartoon 4 April

You’d think the University of Bath would want to put the controversial exit of its former vice-chancellor behind it as effectively and as quietly as possible, given the circumstances. Dame Glynis Breakwell was at the centre of debate around sky-high vice-chancellor salaries last year, and she announced her retirement after it emerged that her £468,000 remuneration package made her the UK’s highest-paid university leader. And yet, Bath has provided staff and students with a constant reminder of her legacy in the form of an oil painting, which, it has been revealed, cost the university £16,000. Eve Alcock, president of Bath Students’ Union, said: “In a climate where we’re lobbying for more money for mental health and well-being initiatives or bursaries and financial support…it is frustrating that the money was used on this.”

T. S. Eliot’s observation that “April is the cruellest month” certainly rang true for many UK higher education staff as increased pension contributions finally kicked in. Under what many hope will be only interim measures, staff began paying 8.8 per cent of salary into the Universities Superannuation Scheme – up from 8 per cent – from 1 April (employers’ contributions rose from 18 per cent to 19.5 per cent). Scholars’ moods will not be improved by news that universities have offered a miserly 1.3 per cent pay increase for 2019-20, which would be the lowest base pay hike since the 1.1 per cent deal in 2016-17. The opening proposal – made by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association – might also open the door for more calls for strike action, although two ballots held by the University and College Union over the 2 per cent pay offer for 2018-19 ultimately fell short of the required turnout threshold. Will unrest over this current deal end the same way, as Eliot also said, not with a bang but a whimper?

No student newspaper had done more to promote diversity than The Mancunion, but students’ union officers are calling for it to go further by recruiting a “sensitivity reader”, The Sun reported. The University of Manchester publication – known for its annual Women in Media conference – was asked by liberation and access officer Sara Khan to make the appointment to ensure that no “insensitive” articles are published. She also wanted the title to seek individuals’ consent before publishing articles about them, claiming that not to do so is “unethical journalism” because it can “result in psychological harm or distress”. The proposal, which was voted down at a meeting on 28 March, was denounced as “impractical and unconstitutional” by the paper’s deputy editor, Amy Wei.

If you think your university supervisor was unreasonably demanding, know that things could have been worse. Take the case of one professor at Seoul’s Sungkyunkwan University, who took student participation to the extreme by forcing graduate students to write her daughter’s thesis. The unnamed professor made her students conduct a three-month experiment and then used the fabricated results to publish in an academic journal under her daughter’s name. A government report into the matter found that a number of academic awards had been “won” by the daughter based on work completed by graduate students, one of whom spent 54 hours converting a book into Braille under the professor’s daughter’s name. An Agence France-Presse report highlighted the case as one of many scandals to hit South Korea’s hyper-competitive education system. It could also help to explain why the professor in question appears to still have her job. “The Education Ministry plans to ask her university to expel the professor,” an official said.

So often, it seems, the road to gender equality is undermined by the very institutions intent on reaching that destination. The University of Oxford suffered a route one failure when a student was made to leave a talk on women’s rights because she had brought along her baby daughter. Ania Kordala, a student at Green Templeton College, Oxford, told the student newspaper Cherwell that she was initially denied entry to the event, “Women and leadership – fighting for an equal world”, because she had her toddler with her. Senior staff stepped in to secure her admission, but minutes later, Ms Kordala said, organisers asked her to leave because her daughter was “babbling”. “If you’re organising an event after 5pm, especially if the event is about equality, women in the workplace, try and organise it in a child-friendly place, or offer a crèche service for the event,” she said. “We don’t stop being interested in the world just because we are parents.”

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