The week in higher education – 4 February 2016

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

February 4, 2016
The week in higher education cartoon (4 February 2016)

David Cameron has waded into the row about racism at the University of Oxford, accusing his alma mater of “not doing enough” to find places for non-white students. Writing for The Sunday Times on 31 January, the prime minister said that racism in top universities “should shame our nation” and that institutions must “go the extra mile” to root out “ingrained, institutional and insidious” attitudes that hold people back. The prime minister singled out his old university, saying that it was “striking” that its 2014 intake of more than 2,500 included only 27 black students, although he admitted that “poor schooling” may be partly to blame. While he rejected “politically correct, contrived and unfair solutions”, such as quotas or positive discrimination, new rules will require the publication of information on applicants by course, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background, he said. Oxford hit back at any suggestion that it was “institutionally racist”, with a spokesman stating that the university had done much to increase numbers of non-white students in recent years. Mr Cameron’s latest target might surprise many, given his well-known links to Oxford, but his spin team are known to like a little “grit in the oyster” for these types of Monday morning talking points.

Just a couple of days before Mr Cameron’s comments, Oriel College, Oxford, announced that it was keeping a controversial statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes in place after alumni threatened to withdraw millions of pounds in donations, The Daily Telegraph reported. Furious donors had threatened to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million if Oriel had bowed to pressure from the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, the paper said, citing a leaked copy of a report prepared by governors. A plaque to Rhodes, previously deemed “inconsistent with our principles” by Oriel, will also stay, the paper said – a decision branded “outrageous, dishonest, and cynical” by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. “This is not over. We will be redoubling our efforts,” the group said.

A US university is requiring its students to wear Fitbit fitness trackers to ensure that they walk a mandatory five miles a day, the College Fix website reported on 28 January. As part of the “Whole Person Education” programme at Oklahoma’s Oral Roberts University, students have long been asked to log aerobic achievements, but they have now been asked to wear pedometers instead, the site reported. Students must complete at least 10,000 steps a day and get their heart rate up to an unspecified level – with the target making up about 20 per cent of students’ grades in a fitness module. Although the evangelical Christian university said that students did not have to use the GPS tracking available on some Fitbit devices, the move has been criticised as Orwellian. But the university’s provost, Kathaleen Reid-Martinez, told the website that it had “made students much more aware of where they are on physical fitness on a daily basis versus weekly basis”.

A guide on how to use a university’s revolving door has prompted claims of a “nanny state gone mad”, the Daily Mail reported on 28 January. The familiar refrain came after Robert Gordon University issued detailed instructions on the potential hazard, the paper said. In an email from the university’s occupational health and safety team, staff and students were warned that “revolving doors are heavy and may cause serious injuries if they strike someone”. Staff were also urged not to push the doors hard because they will “continue revolving” and were advised to “pay attention and look where you are going when using these doors”. While some mocked the list of dos and don’ts, others were more understanding given that a member of staff had fractured their arm at the university’s Garthdee campus. Aberdeen councillor Ian Yuill said: “If someone has been injured in one, there’s been a problem.”

Universities will not be freed from the bureaucratic burden of freedom of information rules, The Daily Telegraph reported on 25 January. While Labour grandee Jack Straw is no fan of the FoI Act, the former home secretary, who is part of a five-strong panel reviewing the legislation, said that there was “no prospect” that universities would be exempt as few calls were made for the change, the paper said. Mr Straw’s panel is due to produce conclusions on how to change FoI laws this month amid fears that ministers want to tighten rules dictating when information is revealed.

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