The week in higher education – 5 December 2019

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

December 5, 2019
Birmingham cartoon

As industrial action at 60 UK universities continued, some management teams resorted to questionable tactics to keep the strikers in line. At the University of Birmingham, a letter was sent round to staff that said the university was “private land” and therefore picketing on it would constitute trespassing. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well among union members and a petition against the policy has attracted more than 1,000 signatures. However, the university said that it had been working with University and College Union representatives and “the location of pickets being outside of premises is common across HE and other sectors”. Meanwhile, the University of Liverpool got itself on shaky ground by reportedly warning students that joining staff on the picket line would be “unlawful” and that alternative learning materials may not be made available for students who failed to attend classes. Sheffield Hallam University, for its part, was accused of “trying to turn students into snitches” after it posted a form on its website where students could enter the details of lectures missed because of the action. With relations between union members and managers already at rock bottom, these tactics are unlikely to help.


Technology is supposed to make life easier but one university administrator claims that it has cost him his job. Ollie de Planta de Wildenberg has reportedly been fired from Newcastle University after autocorrect on his computer changed a female colleague’s name in an email to “hash brown” and this was “perceived as offensive, racial language”. Mr de Planta de Wildenberg told the Newcastle Chronicle that it was a typing error. “Hash brown is not a racist term. It is a breakfast item,” he said. “It is a bit weird to call someone that intentionally. Why would I do it?” However, the university maintained that on “the balance of probability” he did type the words on purpose, and that they “were perceived as offensive and involving racial language”.


The use of terminology was again the centre of a debate, as historians debated whether the term “Anglo-Saxon” should be dropped because it is “bound up by white supremacy”. In September, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists voted to remove Anglo-Saxon from its name because it led to a lack of diversity in the subject. Although the term usually applies to the groups who settled in Britain after the end of Roman rule, it has also been used by white supremacists to describe white people of British origin. However, a group of 61 historians has published a letter defending the use of the term. They say it is “a damaging misdirection of attention to target a word rather than the actual realities that need to be tackled”, according to The Times.


A university professor has donated her royalties from creating a breakthrough cancer drug to charity. Nicola Curtin, professor of experimental cancer therapeutics at Newcastle University, helped develop the drug Rubraca, used to treat patients with ovarian cancer. The university sold the drug, which treats those with the specific BRCA or “Angelina Jolie” gene, for £31 million. Professor Curtin used her £865,000 share to establish the Curtin PARP (Passionate About Realising your Potential) Fund. According to Professor Curtin this was “to help people who are at a disadvantage through no fault of their own”. She compared her payment to a lottery win and said she didn’t believe scientists were driven by “monetary considerations”.


The momentum behind the repatriation movement continues to grow, with one University of Cambridge college announcing that it would be returning a bronze cockerel to Nigeria. Jesus College, Cambridge said that the statue taken by British colonial forces “belongs with the current Oba at the Court of Benin”. Previously much of the focus has been on the UK’s large museum collections but “in reality such loot is held in dozens of institutions across the regions: city museums, art galleries and the collections of universities”, Dan Hicks, a professor of archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, told The Guardian. It comes just weeks after Edinburgh University announced it would return a set of nine human skulls to their homeland of Sri Lanka in a repatriation ceremony.

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