The week in higher education – 4 October 2018

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

October 4, 2018
Week in HE - 4 October 2018

The first term of university life will mean many things to many people – independence, a fresh start and the chance to expand one’s intellectual horizons. If The Sun is to be believed, for some students at the University of Oxford it also means mass orgies. Reporting on 28 September on what it described as “wild, topless parties, drug-fuelled orgies and ‘virgin spanking’”, the newspaper said that some colleges were now placing limits on the number of overnight “guests” their first-year residents are allowed to host. Prospective students might be interested to consider their preferred college’s own take on the matter – Brasenose College allows as many as nine overnight stays per term, for example; but Magdalen College forbids all guests without exception. “Perhaps that’s why Oxford students go so mad at parties, as they’re forced to repress it,” said one partygoer.

Colleges have every right to be concerned, if you take another tabloid’s word for it. According to a headline in the Daily Star on 30 September, the UK student population faces an explosion of incurable sexually transmitted infections thanks to freshers’ activities of the likes reported at Oxford. Sexual health consultant Peter Greenhouse told the newspaper that cuts to sexual health services were to blame, as was the carefree attitude of undergraduates beginning their studies carrying “interesting” diseases picked up on gap years abroad. “When you add into all that an infection that is resistant to antibiotics, you get the threat of a super gonorrhoea epidemic,” Dr Greenhouse warned cheerfully.

Perhaps UK universities could take a leaf out of China’s book. The New York Times reported that a growing number of universities there were creating temporary campsites for anxious parents to stay and keep an eye on first-year students – surely a most effective contraceptive if ever there was one. Tianjin University in northern China has set up what it calls its “tents of love” inside a gymnasium for the past five years, offering parents access to showers and air-conditioning. This year more than 1,000 family members have pitched up, which might sound like a nightmare for teenagers eager for independence. But the pendulum swings both ways – one new student said that he had his mother at his “beck and call” thanks to the sleeping arrangements, bringing him bowls of noodles and cleaning the floor of his new room.

The UK government’s response to calls for a ban on essay mills will not have impressed many in the sector. In a non-committal statement on 27 September, the universities minister, Sam Gyimah, said that legislation to outlaw contract cheating firms was “not off the table” after 46 higher education leaders signed a letter urging a law to clamp down on essay mill use. The letter, which was backed by Universities UK and the Russell Group, pointed out that New Zealand, Australia, the Republic of Ireland and 17 US states had introduced or were seeking to introduce laws banning essay mills and declared that similar action was required in the UK. However, Mr Gyimah seemed to push the ball back to vice-chancellors, stating that he “expect[ed] universities to be taking steps to tackle this issue”. With UK institutions already investing heavily in software to detect cheating, warning students about the consequences of buying ghostwritten essays and banning essay mill advertising, institution heads will be curious to learn what additional steps they might take before politicians get around to doing their bit, too.

A university president has apologised for drinking from a beer bong before a college football game, Inside Higher Ed reported on 25 September. Carlos Vargas, the president of Southeast Missouri State University, said that he regretted his decision to take an eight-second chug from a “device normally associated with excessive or binge drinking” after video footage was posted online. His actions projected an image that “I am not proud of, is not flattering, and certainly not expected from the president of Southeast Missouri State University”, said Dr Vargas, whose board of regents’ president described it as a “teachable moment”. However, many students felt that Dr Vargas’ contrition was unnecessary and struggled to see why anyone was offended by the minor incident. “What the hell is wrong with a man enjoying life with the students that seem to adore him,” tweeted one of Dr Vargas’ champions, while another likened the furore to “something out of the Prohibition Era”.

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