The week in higher education – 7 December 2017

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

December 7, 2017
Week in HE illustration (7 December 2017)

The Home Office has once again deployed its researcher-repelling force field – an invisible shield that protects the UK against the menace of knowledge. On 3 December, The Observer reported on the case of archaeologist Jennifer Wexler, a US citizen with a PhD from UCL, who has worked for the British Museum for four years and had continuous residence in the UK for the past 11 years. She is married to a British man, but had her application for indefinite leave to remain rejected by the Home Office. “The reason for the denial is the number of days that I have spent out of the country. But all of my so-called absences have been explicitly related to archaeological research and work that was affiliated and sanctioned by UK institutions,” she said. The Home Office refusal letter suggested that as an alternative her husband, Sam Nixon, a British researcher at the University of East Anglia, could move to the “United states of American [sic]” with his wife. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, made an obvious point about the international nature of research that is apparently yet to permeate the Home Office: “This is far from a one-off case: there are many academics who have to travel overseas to properly conduct their research and the Home Office should be more flexible.”

About 80 academics have signed a letter to Times Higher Education protesting over the decision to retract a pro-colonialism piece in the journal Third World Quarterly. After an outcry, Bruce Gilley, professor of political science at Portland State University, requested the withdrawal of his paper “The case for colonialism”, published in the journal’s “Viewpoints” section. “We are deeply alarmed by the censorious attitudes and campaigns directed at Third World Quarterly and its editor-in-chief,” say the signatories to the letter. “We see this as part of a wider and increasingly serious problem: a rising tide of intolerance on university campuses and within the academic profession, with certain scholars and students seeking to close down perspectives with which they disagree, rather than debating them openly.”

Whether University of Bath vice-chancellor Dame Glynis Breakwell will avoid further media scrutiny now that she has announced that she is stepping down from her £468,000 post is open to question. To begin with, she is likely to face further criticism for taking a fully paid sabbatical before actually retiring in early 2019 – meaning that she is due to receive £600,000 from now until then. Then there is the unrepentant tone: Dame Glynis told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that she was not “embarrassed” by the controversy and suggested that her pay was simply due to the “globally competitive market for talent in higher education”. Perhaps news of the £433,000 pay package enjoyed by Sir Christopher Snowden at the University of Southampton last year may shift attention away from her, but it will be no surprise if Dame Glynis hits the headlines again in the near future. While she may not be embarrassed by the negative publicity that she has drawn towards her own university and others, plenty in the sector are.

An awards ceremony described as “going back to the days of Bernard Manning” due to its “sexist” tone led to a group of student winners handing back their prize. The Digital Entrepreneur Awards was criticised by many attendees as being inappropriate for its use of scantily clad female dancers and risqué jokes, The Guardian reported on 29 November. The controversy led to more than one winner handing back their prize, including students from Bradford University, who had won the most innovative use of video award. Mark Garratt, the university’s external affairs director, said: “We thought afterwards and we couldn’t possibly keep the award. The whole ceremony didn’t sit comfortably with what, as a university, we are trying to promote.”

Being a graduate could mean that you deal better with major setbacks in life such as a divorce, ill health or unemployment, a study suggests. For example, according to the analysis by the Higher Education Funding Council for England of the data, from the Office for National Statistics’ Annual Population Survey, graduates with very poor health were 15 per cent less anxious than non-graduates in a similar position. On major measures of well-being, graduates also tended to score more highly. However, the study also found that postgraduate qualifications represented a diminishing return in terms of well-being – something who those in the middle of PhD angst are sure to recognise.

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