Welcome advances for universities

Universities may feel held to unachievable standards, but removing barriers for all manner of talented people will make institutions better and stronger

January 10, 2019
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Barriers. Hurdles. Hoops. Ceilings. Higher education has them aplenty. In that, perhaps it reflects many other things in an unfair and unequal world. But universities, with their egalitarian ideals and commitment to opportunity, are rightly held to a higher standard.

In this week’s Times Higher Education, we reflect on some of the ways in which barriers persist, for both students and academics.

In our news pages, we have two examples that are particularly self-defeating.

The first is a consequence of the UK’s perverse approach to welcoming academic talent (and I use the word “welcoming” advisedly). Tales of unduly burdensome visa requirements for incoming scholars and their families have become a staple diet in recent years, a diet amply supplemented by the numerous other reasons why academics might look elsewhere with Brexit (and potentially a no-deal Brexit) looming.

As astrophysicist Catherine Heymans put it in an interview in THE last week, ahead of her move to Germany from the University of Edinburgh: “Why am I leaving? It’s Brexit. The day after the referendum I started looking for alternative funding, because over my career about 90 per cent of my funding has come from the European Union. The UK government says it will continue to invest in research, but its research is always linked to impact, and the sort of blue-sky research that I do is very hard to link directly to industrial impact.”

This week we reveal the results of a survey of the visa costs being imposed on individuals coming to work in UK universities from outside the EU.

The costs themselves are outside universities’ control, but we find that the financial assistance provided by employers varies significantly, with some paying international scholars’ costs in their entirety, some providing loans, some picking up the NHS surcharge, others not.

For someone considering coming to work in post-Brexit Britain, this sort of thing really matters – not just because of the financial impact, although that can be critical depending on individual circumstances, but because of the message it sends.

In another news item this week, we revisit the perennial question of barriers faced by female scholars, particularly as they seek to rise through the academic ranks.

New research has found that efforts to tackle the “leaky pipeline” in France have had the opposite effect to that intended. Moves to put more women on selection committees actually appear to have harmed gender equality, seemingly because men on committees feel threatened and become more discriminatory towards women.

If that doesn’t depress you enough, add to it the reaction to this study’s findings of Christina Ullenius, founder of the European Women Rectors Association. “Disappointing but not totally unexpected,” she tells us. “It has always taken some time before my male colleagues have adjusted and regard me as a colleague rather than an odd woman.”

A third news item that touches on barriers to entry – this time facing early career academics – relates to the thorny issue of retirement age, with new data showing that in the US, steps to abolish compulsory retirement age in some states have reduced academic job vacancies for younger scholars by about a fifth.

Meanwhile, in our cover story, we explore in depth the different approaches taken to university admissions around the world, which highlights the seemingly endless issues that universities grapple with as they try (in most cases, at least) to ensure that their admissions procedures are fair and equitable.

The hurdles that students from certain backgrounds have to clear, particularly to get into some of the most selective universities, are still far too numerous.

What’s more, as our feature makes clear, they cannot all be dismissed as problems foisted upon universities by an unfair world or the failings of earlier stages of education.

Most, although not all, know that this is the case, and are attempting to do more to remove barriers for students from less advantaged backgrounds at least. This has to happen in other spheres that they control too, including by committing to building and supporting a diverse academic body that represents the interests and experiences of all.

 

john.gill@timeshighereducation.com

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