The week in higher education – 5 October 2017

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

October 5, 2017
Week in HE illustration (5 October 2017)

The response of many UK universities to Lord Adonis’ crusade on executive pay has been one of quiet indifference. But one university has now retaliated by withdrawing an offer of an honorary degree to the former Labour education minister, The Sunday Times reported on 1 October. Sheffield Hallam University had been due to make the award at a ceremony next month but, according to the paper, Lord Kerslake, the institution’s chancellor, has phoned his fellow peer “to tell him his campaign meant a ceremony this autumn was inappropriate”. What the Sunday Times described as “sources close to Adonis” said that he found the withdrawal “very rude, but also very funny”. “It turns out that vice-chancellors only like free speech so long as they aren’t criticised,” the “sources” said. Many university leaders will be pleased to see a bit of a fightback at last. However, Lord Adonis’ bachelor’s degree and doctorate from the University of Oxford look like they are safe – for now at least.

Landing amid the jolly world of UK higher education policy is Stephen Toope, the new vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, who was installed on 2 October. Globalisation might not be the flavour of the month but Professor Toope wasn’t afraid to make the case for internationalisation in higher education during his inaugural address, delivered at Cambridge’s Senate House. “No single country or discipline can have exclusive purchase on how we attack today’s fundamental problems – nor can a single institution, no matter how high in the league tables,” said Professor Toope, who called on Cambridge to “take a global lead as the place where barriers between areas of knowledge are broken down”. Speaking of barriers between areas of knowledge, one look at the current standard of higher education policymaking in the UK would suggest that Professor Toope has a big job on his hands.

Current concerns in Belgium are of a rather different flavour, with ministers pledging to take legal action to force a website that pairs young women with a “sugar daddy” to remove huge adverts near the country’s universities. Trucks bearing large posters promoting Richmeetbeautiful appeared on the outskirts of campuses in Brussels, The Guardian reported on 26 September, bearing the slogan: “Improve your style of life. Get a sugar daddy”. Isabelle Simonis, minister for women in Brussels’ francophone administration, described the adverts as “scandalous and alarming” and said that she intended to launch criminal proceedings against the firm for allegedly inciting debauchery and prostitution. However, Sigurd Vedel, the company’s chief executive, rejected any link to prostitution. “Prostitution is not promoted, but the financial aspect is part of any relationship”, he said.

The University of Edinburgh probably thought that it had this year’s prize for the most famous honorary graduate stitched up when it awarded Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau a doctorate in July. However, a late – and very strong – entry has come from Swansea University, which will confer an honorary doctorate on US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on 14 October. The award is being made in recognition of Ms Clinton’s “commitment to promoting the rights of families and children around the world”, Swansea said, with vice-chancellor Richard Davies adding that it was “tremendous” that the Democrat was making the institution the first stop on her visit to the UK. One can’t help feeling, however, that Ms Clinton was probably hoping to have less time on her hands for this sort of thing when she cast her ballot on 8 November last year.

Spare a thought for staff at the Student Loans Company, which has been ranked as the worst place to work in the UK’s public sector, The Times reported on 27 September. Based on ratings posted by employees on two major recruitment websites, the paper found that the Glasgow-based organisation scored significantly below other public sector bodies, with just a third of employees saying that they would recommend working for the company. Disgruntled staff left numerous messages on the websites complaining about the poor quality of management, with many describing it as “incompetent, untrustworthy, manipulative and bullying”. Searching for positives, one employee was forced to scrape the barrel, referencing the proximity of a Greggs bakery to the office. Steve Lamey, the organisation’s chief executive, was suspended in July pending an investigation. An SLC spokesman said that the company had recognised “the need for a change in culture” and that a “number of initiatives to improve organisational health have been launched”. 

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