For higher education, 2017 brought never a dull day

The past year has seemed one of almost daily shocks and surprises for higher education, which THE has divulged, documented and dissected

December 21, 2017
Trump and the bomb
Source: Getty / iStock montage

If 2016 was the year that gave birth to Brexit and President Trump, in 2017 they turned into toddlers, bringing tears, tantrums and night terrors.

The terrible twins guaranteed an action-packed 12 months for universities the world over, so what were the high- and lowlights?

Times Higher Education’s first issue in January led on a topic that was to become one of the biggest furores of 2017: vice-chancellors’ pay. The story then was that Russell Group leaders had taken home an average hike of 6 per cent – far more than the 1 per cent average for all staff. Our scoop foreshadowed the row to come, once Lord Adonis cottoned on to v-c pay and powered up his Twitter account.

Also in January, we ran an interview with Rafael Reif, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in which he insisted that “a change in Washington will not change who we are”. That this would be challenged became clear when Trump tweeted a threat to cut all federal funding from the University of California, Berkeley after protests forced the cancellation of a talk on campus by the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

February began with another story that was to become all-too familiar: impassioned pleas for the UK to get its act together and make the case to protect universities in the Brexit talks.

Sir Vince Cable told THE that universities would be one of the “main casualties” of the UK leaving the European Union, with particular fears about access to research funding and the country’s ability to lure top global talent.

Similar fears dogged the US as Trump began his ill-fated efforts to impose a travel ban.

In March, THE cover stories included a lament on the inexorable decline in modern language study and an in-depth look at how academics mobilised when Ebola hit West Africa in 2014.

April brought analysis of the French election, when the run of right-wing shocks came to an end. Much was made of Emmanuel Macron’s appeal to disaffected researchers from the UK and the US as France’s new sun king sought to capitalise on his appeal to the global Left.

This also touched on a perennial complaint about academia – that it is too politically homogeneous – and in May a Republican 
professor of philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin shared his insights into academia’s problem with the political Right.

Back in the UK, the v-cs’ pay row picked up pace with THE’s annual salary survey .

We also reported on academia as the battleground for spreading culture wars, highlighting how populists across Europe were targeting gender studies. This “new right” was “using gender to mobilise hate”, one professor at the imperilled Central European University told us.

The week before the UK general election in June, THE surveyed 1,000 university staff on their voting intentions – and predicted a Labour landslide. If this seemed unlikely at the time, the poll seemed less out of kilter with reality when the result came in (acknowledging that Labour still lost).

Our powers of prediction were proven again later in June with the results of the teaching excellence framework, which closely mirrored the “mock TEF” that our data team had compiled a year earlier. THE produced the definitive TEF league tables, with over a quarter of a million people reading our coverage online.

In July, we reported on rumblings of doubt about the future of the tuition fee regime in England: a THE survey found that one in three UK vice-chancellors supported Labour’s plan to abolish fees. In the autumn, the government announced a “major review” into funding, and a policy that had seemed settled was unsettled once again.

August saw the publication of the THE Nobel Laureates Survey, which pooled the insights and predictions of 50 Nobel laureates on everything from the challenges facing universities to the greatest threats facing mankind.

The survey was discussed at the THE World Academic Summit, which brought together 400 university leaders, Nobel prizewinners, politicians and policymakers from across the world. The event, at King’s College London, also saw the launch of the THE World University Rankings , topped for the first time by two UK universities – Oxford and Cambridge.

Stories in September and October included the abolition of tuition fees in New Zealand, the continuing purge of academics in Turkey and the publication of the second THE/WSJ US College Rankings (Harvard came top).

As autumn turned to winter, the savaging of well-remunerated vice-chancellors continued – THE led the national news agenda again with revelations of eye-watering pay-offs, including one v-c who was paid £800,000 in a single year.

Other THE cover stories included an in-depth report from Arctic Canada on the “indigenisation” of higher education, and horrifying testimony about sexual harassment in higher education.

So it’s been a busy year wherever in the world you’ve been reading from. Thank you for spending some of your 2017 with THE. Happy Christmas, and we will start all over again in the new year!

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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