The week in higher education – 6 June 2019

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

June 6, 2019
Cartoon 6 June 2019

A professor has criticised “moron” celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Rihanna who keep monkeys for pets. A forthcoming book by Ben Garrod, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of East Anglia, says that there are about 4,500 privately owned primates in the UK, many taken on because of a “misguided desire to own a cool pet”, The Times reported on 1 June. The author of The Chimpanzee & Me told the Hay Festival that primates made “awful pets” and keeping them as such exposed them to health and psychological damage. “Justin Bieber, the guy’s a moron. Absolute super-moron,” he added. By judging that his study in the field might make his argument heard, Professor Garrod might be misjudging the mood sweeping the Western world. We’re going to keep monkeys for pets, stop getting our kids vaccinated and make a series of destabilising political choices – and we’ll thank the experts not to tell us that any of this is a bad idea.

As the panel report for England’s post-18 education review finally emerged, Theresa May took aim at journalists for supposedly prioritising its higher education funding plans above its further education ones. The prime minister said at the launch event on 30 May that the media’s focus over the review’s long gestation had been “rather telling” and that “most of the questions so far have been about higher education” when “at least half of the report if not more” was on further education. Were snooty, university-educated journalists to blame for this selective focus? In her 2017 Conservative conference speech, which triggered the review, Ms May announced a “major review of university funding and student financing”. Which would suggest that her thoughts at that time were primarily on addressing the Conservatives’ declining fortunes among younger voters while also cutting university funding, rather than on the neglected college students she did so little to champion until the very end of her time in office.

Sam Gyimah, the former universities minister, announced on 2 June that he was entering the race to succeed Ms May as Tory leader and prime minister, becoming the 13th contestant in a crowded field. He spent much of his time as minister trashing universities over free speech so as to cultivate favour among the right-wing press and enhance his career prospects. Just the sort of attitude needed to secure the top job, you might think. But on the day of Mr Gyimah’s announcement, his successor as universities minister, Chris Skidmore, tweeted: “This ‘vanity candidate’ phenomenon is becoming a joke – hope the 1922 Committee [of backbench MPs] bring in new rules so that candidates have to be nominated by a fixed proportion of the parliamentary party.” Mr Gyimah and the word “vanity” clearly do not belong in the same sentence, so Mr Skidmore must have been responding to some other leadership bid.

One US university has found itself with an enviable problem – too many students. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University admitted this week that it had enrolled 1,000 more undergraduate students than expected – bucking the national trend of declining enrolment in public institutions. Virginia Tech told The Chronicle of Higher Education that it wasn’t sure of the exact reason why more students than usual were taking up their offers, but administrators were taking inspiration from airline companies and offering some of its passengers – sorry, students – a wad of cash in exchange for deferring enrolment for a year. Some 1,559 local applicants were eligible for the offer: a $1,000 (£792) annual scholarship over the next four years, costing the university $3.3 million in total. “It’s a challenging but essentially good problem to have,” said Mark Owczarski, assistant vice-president for university relations.

A graduate of one UK university found herself £61,000 richer for very different reasons. Pok Wong, who graduated with a first in international business strategy from Anglia Ruskin University in 2013, received the out-of-court settlement after claiming that she had been left with a “Mickey Mouse degree”. She sued the institution for false advertising after claiming that it had “exaggerated the prospects of a career” in its prospectus. The university said that the settlement was agreed by their insurer’s solicitors and that the institution did not agree with the deal. But Ms Wong told The Sunday Telegraph: “In light of this settlement I think universities should be careful about what they say in prospectuses.” We look forward to a run of prospectuses promising applicants an average experience and crippling debt.

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