The week in higher education

August 15, 2013

Since taking over last year at the Office for Fair Access, Les Ebdon’s tactic for avoiding publicity has been to make all his pronouncements as boring as possible. But that does not keep people off the front page of The Observer, where Professor Ebdon landed on 11 August. He told the newspaper of his belief that universities seeking to maximise their income were encouraged to admit “good middle-class” applicants rather than take a risk on disadvantaged students who were more likely to drop out. Writing an outraged response on the Daily Telegraph website on 12 August, novelist Jake Wallis Simons creatively imagined how contextual data work. Professor Ebdon “wants tutors to ignore the D in maths and divine…that this student sitting before them would have achieved an A had he only been sent to a good school”, he suggested. Mr Wallis Simons no doubt buys two train tickets whenever he travels: one for himself and one for his straw man.

The removal of the numbers cap for the recruitment of high-achieving students has had a serious unintended consequence: too many thin stories in the national press about universities trying to “tempt” prospective students by offering them stuff. “Universities woo elite students with cash and iPads” was The Sunday Times’ contribution to this new genre on 11 August. Coventry University will be offering £1,000 scholarships plus “tickets to lectures by star speakers as well as free laptops on some courses”, the newspaper said. The Sunday Telegraph at least reported on the more significant implications of the trend, quoting concerns about scholarships being used as “cash giveaways” to help fill places rather than as a means of extending access. But these stories are preferable to one of the main alternatives in higher education news for national papers struggling in silly season: things that Mary Beard has recently tweeted.

A Chinese academic spent six years constructing his dream mountaintop villa. However, he created it atop a 25-storey Beijing apartment block, without planning permission, leaving his neighbours fearing that the building will collapse. “Eccentric Professor Zhang Lin shifted tons of rubble and rock onto the roof of the building to construct the outrageous home which looks like it has been carved from a mountainside,” the Daily Mail said on 12 August. His flat “was originally a small attic when he bought it. But he tore that down and built this mountain on top of us,” one neighbour said. Maddeningly introverted, oblivious to the needs of others – the professor is clearly on a mission to fulfil every stereotype in the book about academics. At least he didn’t build an ivory tower.

Asda is to launch a three-year degree programme with Middlesex University that will allow 30 Asda employees to study for a qualification in either distribution or retail operations while they work, The Daily Telegraph reported on 12 August. The scheme is the latest move by a corporation to sponsor higher education programmes for its staff: last year, the fried chicken chain KFC launched its KFC degree, which it developed with De Montfort University. Asda proclaimed its low prices in a famous advertising campaign that featured customers tapping their pockets and hearing the sound of money jingling. Interestingly, this is exactly what some universities hear when they sign validation agreements.

On 12 August, BBC Two’s Horizon programme featured Larry Smarr, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of California, San Diego and one of the most influential computer scientists around. He puts his energies into monitoring everything about his physical self, from his calorific burn and heart rate to his saliva, urine and even his faeces, believing that we unthinkingly discard information that could help to keep us healthy. Using his data sample, Professor Smarr diagnosed his own Crohn’s disease. At one point, presenter Kevin Fong, honorary senior lecturer in physiology at University College London and a Times Higher Education columnist, watched with surprise as Professor Smarr opened his kitchen freezer and took out a sample of his stool. Professor Smarr is to be commended for his commitment to his research, but he won’t win any prizes for food hygiene.

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