The week in higher education – 6 September 2018

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

September 6, 2018
cartoon geese

University Challenge throws up plenty of headscratchers each week, but perhaps none more tricky that the following: what is a “gender-neutral question?” Last week it emerged that, facing growing criticism over its male-dominated panels, the BBC Two quiz show will focus on posing a more “gender-neutral” set of brain teasers. The show is not exactly known for its copious questions on Premier League goal scorers, Formula One trivia or other apparently blokey specialisms, so what might this exactly mean? “We try to ensure that when hearing a question, we don’t have any sense of whether it was written by a man or a woman, just as questions should never sound as if they are directed more at men than women,” explained Peter Gwyn, the show’s executive producer, according to BBC News on 28 August. With the new push to make University Challenge more female-friendly, how long before host Jeremy Paxman, the famously alpha male interviewer, gets the heave-ho?

Staff at King’s College, Cambridge have declared war on a flock of bullying birds. The Canada geese on the River Cam raised havoc this summer by dive-bombing tourists and knocking them off their punts, according to college porters. Amid outcry over rumours of a cull, staff at King’s have been armed with a more humane, if pricey, arsenal in the form £750 laser torches, The Times reported on 31 August. Domus bursar Philip Isaac explained his dusk-time defence strategy to the newspaper: “You just wave these things in front of their feet and they are gone. They may come back but at that moment, they just disappear. It’s quite satisfying.” The college also plans to oil goose eggs in spring to prevent them from hatching and reduce the number of geese. “The college has used a variety of non-harmful measures to deter the geese and will continue to do so,” a spokesman confirmed.

Anyone who has ever ordered their groceries online will be familiar with the perils of armchair shopping. Receiving a single banana instead of a bunch is an error accommodated much more easily than the one that Daniel Bolnick made, however. Posting on Twitter on 31 August, the biology professor at the University of Connecticut admitted that he had struggled to get to grips with his institution’s ordering system. “I somehow purchased 1,200 pounds of serological pipettes that took up four shipping pallets,” he said alongside an accompanying image of boxes several feet high. “Somehow my five cases request became 285 cases,” he added. “Moral of the story: even a well-established researcher can screw up.”

The London School of Economics is looking increasingly lonely in the lowest “bronze” category of the UK’s teaching excellence framework. It was originally ranked alongside Soas, University of London, another internationally renowned institution, but Soas announced on 31 August that it had been upgraded to “silver” after submitting a successful appeal. Deborah Johnston, Soas’ pro-director for learning and teaching, had been an outspoken critic of the TEF’s methodology, arguing that Soas’ large international student cohort meant that it was penalised on several metrics. “Since the TEF was initiated, we have made clear our concerns in relation to the ‘bluntness’ of its approach and the flaws that we believe it continues to have,” Professor Johnston said. “I am pleased that this silver rating makes clear that these concerns are not driven by the summary grading it delivers for us as an institution.” The LSE is another university with a large international student cohort, so perhaps there is hope for it yet.

The days of student hellraising are well and truly over, a new YouGov poll has revealed. Fewer than one in five UK undergraduates get drunk more than once in a typical week, while just over half never get intoxicated, the i newspaper reported on 30 August. “The old perception of students as hard-boozing party animals may now be a dated one – whether that is because interests and hobbies are changing as more events become available, or that students are increasingly health-aware,” observed Ben Glanville, head of YouGov Omnibus UK, which commissioned the poll of 1,000 UK students. University campuses have not completely become seminaries of teetotal self-restraint, it appears, with a hardcore minority – 6 per cent – boozing three times a week or more. There might be some hope for student union bars after all.

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