The week in higher education – 6 July 2017

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

July 6, 2017
Week in HE cartoon 6 July 2017

For Jo Johnson, the UK’s universities minister, revenge is a dish best served up quickly. Just a week after Sir Christopher Snowden, the vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, branded the government’s flagship teaching excellence framework “meaningless” and “devoid of credibility”, Mr Johnson told the Festival of Higher Education of his concern about the rate at which sector leaders’ salaries were increasing. Searching for an example to back up his point, where did the minister take aim? Although he didn’t name names, his description of “a Russell Group institution…on the South Coast” which paid its vice-chancellor £350,000 after a “steep increase” in remuneration left no one in any doubt. Sector observers with good memories may recall how the apparent falling-out between Mr Johnson and the Higher Education Funding Council for England over the perceived clash between the regulator’s quality assessment reforms and plans for the TEF was swiftly followed by the publication of proposals to replace Hefce with the new Office for Students. Which higher education leader will be the next to be crossed off the minister’s Christmas card list?


The merits of Sir Christopher’s outburst against the TEF have been much debated by vice-chancellors, with some pointing out that it served to make Southampton more prominent in news reports on poor performers in the exercise. Another institution that might want to reconsider its public relations strategy is the University of Manchester, which announced on 29 June that it had appointed George Osborne, the former chancellor of the Exchequer, as an honorary professor of economics. Aside from the question of whether this will actually involve much work – probably not – Manchester surely cannot have been surprised to see the appointment billed as a “sixth job” for the editor of the Evening Standard, who is also chairman of the Northern Powerhouse, makes speeches for the McCain Institute and is said to be paid £650,000 annually by BlackRock. With Manchester’s plan to axe 171 jobs leaving around 1,000 employees facing uncertainty, “none of them will be reassured by the university’s decision to offer a man with five jobs something else to do”, said Martyn Moss, regional official for the University and College Union.


Theresa May’s closest political confidant was not hinting that university tuition fees could be scrapped in England when he urged Tories to “change hard” to woo young voters, Downing Street has insisted. Speaking at the Bright Blue thinktank, Damian Green, the first secretary of state, admitted that student debt was a “huge issue” and that there should be a “national debate” on how higher education is funded. However, Number 10 moved quickly to quash any talk of a Corbyn-style abolition of fees, the Daily Mail reported on 3 July. “Damian wasn't talking about getting rid of [fees],” clarified environment secretary Michael Gove on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on 2 July, although he agreed with Mr Green about the need for a national debate. “What Damian was saying, what I believe, is that if we have to fund higher education, and if people who get university degrees go on to earn well, which is good, they should pay something back and that's what the current system does,” Mr Gove added. So that’s clear. The system is perfectly fair, but it’s time to have a national debate about it.


UK universities are supposedly “awash with cash”, if you speak to some Whitehall insiders looking to squeeze higher education funding. That status seems almost poverty-stricken compared with universities in Australia, which are, according to the country’s education minister Simon Birmingham, bathing in “rivers of gold” courtesy of the taxpayer, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on 3 July. “Australian universities have been enjoying a serious flow of money – rivers of gold, if you like – since the demand-driven system for universities was put in place a number of years ago,” said Mr Birmingham. However, not all institutions seem to feel so enriched by the golden tide flowing their way. In a submission to a Senate inquiry, Universities Australia said just eight universities had a surplus of 8 per cent or more in 2015 compared with 23 in 2009 – while individual institutions said a proposed 2.5 per cent efficiency cut would lead to job losses. In short, the golden river is set to become a golden stream, which sounds altogether less appealing.


Modern learning methods may produce a whole generation of graduates who think like Donald Trump, an Australian academic has claimed. Pointing to research that indicates that US and Australian degrees do not teach critical thinking skills, Sandra Egege, a philosophy lecturer at Flinders University, warned that future graduates would soon be emulating the notoriously erratic and impulsive thought processes seen in the US president, the Daily Mail reported on 2 July. “Students are in danger of thinking like Trump – they don't think critically – they like to jump to conclusions based on fake news and opinion,” said Dr Egege. A degree in covfefe, anyone?

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