The week in higher education – 4 July 2024

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

July 4, 2024
Week in HE cartoon 4 July
Source: Nick Newman

For male academics, deciding what to wear to a conference can be a conundrum. Wearing a suit risks appearing overdressed, while anything less may be deemed too casual. Never fear, “the menswear guy” – Derek Guy, social media’s fashion agony uncle – has weighed in. “I don’t think you can go wrong with a sport coat paired with tailored trousers and leather shoes,” he advised, in response to a request on X from Robert Kubinec, assistant professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi. Mr Guy warned that this combination can look bad when the clothes aren’t well fitting or “ugly”, but “when the clothes fit, it looks great”. And, if you’re worried that heeding his guidance could leave you looking like a “boring nerd”, the author of the Die, Workwear! blog has some comforting advice. “You are a boring nerd, hence your profession,” he said. “You will look like a boring nerd in anything [because] that’s you.” But, he concluded, “If you are cool, then you will still look cool in these clothes.”

The dire financial state of British universities could force them to sell off the family silver or, in the case of one Scottish institution, the principal’s £1.3 million townhouse. Strathclyde University has put the official residence of Sir Jim McDonald on the market following rumours of financial pressures, which the university denies. An anonymous source told the Sunday Mail that “eye-watering sums” were spent on refurbishing the property after it was bought in 2013, with purchases reportedly including a £4,000 wardrobe and a £1,180 chair. “The principal’s townhouse now looks like an extravagant purchase which can no longer be justified,” the source said. With little sign of a dramatic turnaround in UK universities’ fortunes, perhaps a trip to Ikea is on the horizon for Sir Jim.

One pensioner has taken lifelong learning to the next level, earning a master’s degree from Stanford University aged 105. Virginia “Ginger” Hislop left an 84-year gap between completing her undergraduate and master’s degrees, after the latter was interrupted by the Second World War. With only her thesis left to complete, Ms Hislop abandoned her studies in 1940 to marry her husband, who had been called up to serve in the army. Fortunately, by the time her son-in-law reached out to Stanford, some eight decades later, to see what could be done, a thesis was no longer a requirement of the degree, local television station KTVU reported. “My goodness,” Ms Hislop said on finally being awarded her certificate. “I’ve waited a long time for this.” Perhaps there is a lesson here for current students procrastinating their assignments: if you’re willing to wait until the year 2108, the degree may simply complete itself.

When researchers at the University of Reading put ChatGPT to the test in an undergraduate psychology exam, not only did the artificial intelligence tool go undetected by most markers, it tended to score higher than actual students on shorter answers, such as 200-word submissions. On the other hand, real students were better at more substantive 1,500-word essay questions, backing up wider complaints from lecturers about the technology’s “jarring” writing style becoming increasingly visible in essays submitted by students who had clearly had a helping hand from ChatGPT. Times Higher Education has reported on incidents of academics sounding off about students accidentally leaving adverts for the technology and disclaimers about machine-generated content in their papers; it seems you don’t have to be Sherlock to detect all AI usage. 

As if things haven’t been tough enough for today’s university starters, having spent many of their formative years under pandemic-induced lockdowns, they now face the less-than-cheery prospect of paying off their student loans into their fifties, The Times reported. Those commencing their degrees in England this year will be expected to repay their tuition fees and maintenance loans for 40 years before they are written off, instead of the previous 30. So, while many of us dream of spending our retirements revelling in the fruits of our labour, for many of today’s students, they may simply be relieved that this milestone will finally mark the end of having to chip away at a colossal student loan.

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