The week in higher education – 7 January 2021

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

January 7, 2021

International collaboration is clearly a vital part of university activity in the 21st century and something that has been thrown into sharp focus by the coronavirus pandemic. But new figures revealing just how many flights staff take are likely to add to the questions about whether the sector can return to the old ways of fostering such ties when Covid-19 finally recedes. According to a report in The Independent based on a Freedom of Information request, employees at just eight Russell Group universities in the UK took almost 170,000 plane journeys in four years between 2016 and 2020. The paper said that this was just the “tip of the iceberg” because 15 other institutions from the group said they could not provide figures. While science conferences and cross-border research make many journeys essential, such figures are still likely to increase the debate about whether more elements of collaboration can stay online after the pandemic.

It was another chastening year for the UK academics game enough to appear on the celebrity alumni version of University Challenge. Although several professors featured on the festive season of the BBC Two show, none particularly shone when it came to answering starters for 10, with the academic-free team from the Courtauld Institute of Art taking the overall crown by trouncing the University of Manchester by 150 points to 80. The final’s standout moment – remarked upon by host Jeremy Paxman – saw a Courtauld contestant, writer and poet Lavinia Greenlaw, beat Manchester’s David Nott, an Imperial College London surgery professor, to the buzzer on a medical question about blood plasma, showing that years steeped in a discipline are not particularly advantageous when it comes to answering rapid-fire quiz questions on that subject.

The steady rise of Australia’s institutions up the world’s university rankings is over, an outgoing vice-chancellor has predicted. In a frank interview in The Australian, Greg Craven, who is stepping down after 13 years in charge at the Australian Catholic University, said even elite institutions would have to settle for a much diminished future given the research cuts needed as Australia adapted to life without the A$7 billion (£4 billion) a year provided by fees from Chinese students. “You’re going have to accept you’re no longer going to be Manchester United on a good day – you’re going to be Wolverhampton Wanderers,” said Professor Craven, who added that “the days of lots of Australian universities being in the top 100 is finished”. The pandemic may have caused the current crisis, expected to lead to layoffs in 2021, but Professor Craven said that he had warned about the sector’s over-reliance on China for years. “I would go on panels and publicly warn about this, and the other vice-chancellors would say nothing. It was like a drug addiction,” he said.

The coronavirus crisis in the UK over the festive period may have put paid to many traditions but one remained unchanged: the inclusion of several academics in the New Year Honours list. Among the leaders with honours were Gerry McCormac, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Stirling, who was knighted, while appointed CBE were Edward Peck and Shearer West, the vice-chancellors of neighbouring institutions Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham. Other academics with damehoods and knighthoods included Carol Propper, professor of economics at Imperial Business School and president of the Royal Economic Society, and Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge. Ann Mroz, former editor of Times Higher Education, who recently stepped down as editor of Tes, was also honoured after being appointed an MBE for services to education.

Sector leaders and Covid-19 vaccine researchers are not the only academics who are getting attention at the moment. The Times recently highlighted the work of Clifford Johnson, a British theoretical physicist who has “the unusual task of telling Hollywood how to explain theorems and theories in its films”. Like many a cinematic superhero, he has a day job – working on superstring theory at the University of Southern California – but he moonlights as an adviser to film-makers who need someone to ensure the equations on a mathematician’s blackboard add up, to explain how to build wormholes or detail the finer points of time travel. “The key is to get film-makers to realise that the more they let me help them with the science, the more cool their story can be; the deeper dive they do, the more fun elements they can bring up,” he said.

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