The week in higher education

July 18, 2013

University Challenge quizmaster Jeremy Paxman has entered the perennial “dumbing down” debate by claiming that today’s students are cleverer than their predecessors. Mr Paxman, who has hosted the BBC Two quiz show for almost 20 years, told the Radio Times that the quality of contestants is proof that there is nothing wrong with the next generation of graduates, The Times reported on 9 July. In fact, students may be getting brighter because questions have become harder over the years, he said. However, their capabilities may be more cerebral than practical. Students were stumped by a round of questions on clothes-label washing instructions, Mr Paxman said, “[getting] every single one wrong”.

Eyebrows were raised after the University of Reading managed to find almost £1 million for a Samuel Beckett manuscript. The Daily Telegraph’s Tom Chivers wondered whether the doodle-strewn notebooks containing the first draft of Beckett’s 1938 novel Murphy were worth £962,500. Writing on 12 July, Mr Chivers asked: “What can we learn about Beckett from the fact that he liked to draw half-formed spirals or what looks like a gorilla in a baseball cap?” Students also queried the purchase. “So that’s where all the tuition fees are going,” Badal Naik, outgoing president of Reading students’ union, told the Daily Mail. Reading’s vice-chancellor, Sir David Bell, said the acquisition would “provide unparalleled opportunities to learn more about one of the greatest writers in living memory” and was funded by the sale of less significant assets from the university’s £40 million art portfolio.

Academics from the university that discovered the remains of Richard III have criticised an “exploitative and insensitive” artwork by Damien Hirst that shows the artist posing with the head of a corpse, The Independent reported on 13 July. With Dead Head - a photograph of a grinning 16-year- old Hirst taken at the anatomy school in Leeds where he used to sketch body parts - is on display at the New Art Gallery Walsall. But Sarah Tarlow and Matthew Beamish - scholars in the University of Leicester’s archaeology department - say the artist’s 1991 work is “an abuse of power” and “breaches all professional standards of those who regularly deal with the bodies of the dead”. The pair contrast it with Leicester’s treatment of Richard III’s bones. “We wouldn’t dream of…holding his skull and grinning. Or putting a silly hat on him,” Mr Beamish said.

Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University has apologised for a student mural depicting Adolf Hitler among a group of superheroes, the Bangkok Post reported on 15 July. The university received complaints about an image of Hitler giving a Nazi salute in a graduation mural outside the university’s arts faculty building alongside Superman, Batman, the Incredible Hulk and other superheroes, all featured below a large banner with the word “Congratulations”. According to Supakorn Dispan, the faculty dean, students intended to show that “superheroes are there to protect the world” and that “there are both good and evil people”. They were unaware of the offence that the work might cause, he added. The university has apologised after complaints by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which said it was “outraged and disgusted” by the mural.

The fate of David Willetts was still to be decided in an expected reshuffle looming as Times Higher Education went to press. The universities and science minister had been said to be “vulnerable” on 12 July by Isabel Hardman, editor of the Spectator’s Coffee House blog. On 14 July, the Mail on Sunday reported that “senior sources” had predicted that Elizabeth Truss - a junior minister in the Department for Education - would be promoted to a job “just outside the Cabinet”, which fits the bill for the universities and science brief. But on the same day, Matthew d’Ancona warned in The Sunday Telegraph against removing Mr Willetts, saying that “a government that ejects a politician of Willetts’ calibre, intellect and experience simply to make space for (say) an Etonian with a full head of hair is practising self-harm”. That must have delighted Mr Willetts even if it drew unwarranted attention to his almost imperceptible bald spot.

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