The week in higher education – 4 January 2018

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

January 4, 2018
Week in HE cartoon 4 January 2018

Historians looking to investigate some of the most controversial moments in Britain’s 20th-century past could be left disappointed after it emerged that thousands of files had been mislaid after being removed from the country’s National Archives. The Guardian reported on 26 December that documents concerning the Falklands conflict, Northern Ireland’s Troubles and the Zinoviev letter had gone missing after being borrowed by civil servants. Papers relating to British colonial administration in Palestine, tests on polio vaccines and relations with Argentina were also among those lost. Jon Trickett, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, said that the loss of the documents was “unacceptable”. “These important historical documents may be a great loss to history – and their disappearance must urgently be investigated,” he told the newspaper.

Hopes that the Christmas break would offer some respite from 2017’s torrent of headlines about safe spaces, no-platforming and “snowflake” students were dashed abruptly on Boxing Day by Jo Johnson, the UK’s universities minister. In a speech in Birmingham, Mr Johnson expressed concerns about campus groups “seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them” and said that the new Office for Students was prepared to fine universities that did not promote free speech. Of course, this was little different from what Mr Johnson had said before, but briefing of the speech ahead of Christmas ensured that it topped the news agenda on a day when there was little else to report apart from what the Royal Family wore to church. Appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on the same day, Mr Johnson claimed that students at some universities had insisted on lists of “trigger words” that should not be used and had demanded the removal of some books from their libraries. Soon UK university staff will wistfully recall those better days when all Mr Johnson talked about was the teaching excellence framework.

The festive season did offer its annual dose of cheerier news, however, as UK academics and university leaders were recognised in the New Year Honours. There was a damehood for Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool and president of Universities UK, as well as knighthoods for Tim Melville-Ross, the chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and John Curtice, the pollster and professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde. Other university leaders being honoured included Joy Carter, vice-chancellor of the University of Winchester, who was appointed CBE, while there were OBEs for Margaret House, vice-chancellor of Leeds Trinity University, and two former vice-chancellors: Clive Behagg, formerly of the University of Chichester, and Antony Chapman, formerly of Cardiff Metropolitan University. For former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, it appears that his broken pledge not to increase university tuition fees has been forgiven: he got a knighthood.

There will be no more California dreaming for the University of Warwick, which has announced that it has backed out of plans to open an outpost in the US state. The 600-acre branch campus near Sacramento was meant to have enrolled 6,000 students by 2031, but Warwick has said that concerns about regulatory constraints and unnamed “global political challenges” had made it reconsider. A joint statement issued by Warwick and its partner, the University Development Foundation, said that Warwick’s council had concluded “that what was now being considered had moved too far beyond the original vision of the project in terms of the nature, scale and timescale and that the university could no longer see a model going forward that would lead to the university being able to establish the originally envisioned fully comprehensive, research-led campus”. With the closure of Aberystwyth University’s Mauritius campus and reports that the University of Aberdeen’s plan for an outpost in South Korea is “highly likely to fall through”, it seems unlikely that branch campuses will be de rigueur for universities in 2018.

Festive celebrations got a little out of hand at one US university fraternity party, where the atmosphere was so thick with alcohol that the air inside the house registered on a breathalyser. Washington-based TV station WJLA reported that when police raided a “tequila Tuesday” party in Bethesda, Maryland, they discovered about 70 revellers and a “noticeably sticky basement floor”. The ambient air in the property registered 0.01 on at least one police breathalyser, according to court documents. Six alleged occupants, members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at Washington’s American University, were charged with 126 counts each of allowing underage possession of alcohol and furnishing alcohol to a minor: that’s quite some hangover. 

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