The week in higher education – 15 September 2022

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

September 15, 2022

Renowned quantum theorist Giorgio Parisi has perhaps proven once and for all that cooking pasta is more art than science. His money-saving technique for preparing Italy’s favourite food involved bringing a pot to the boil before turning the gas off, adding the pasta and waiting for it to cook without heat, The Times reported. While colleagues were quick to back up the physics behind the Nobel prizewinner’s theory – pasta only requires water to be at about 80°C to cook – the country’s leading chefs were less than impressed. One said it would be a “disaster”, while another claimed it would leave the spaghetti a bit “gluey”, adding, “I don’t think Parisi is a genius in the kitchen.” Still, with the cost-of-living crisis set to wreak havoc this coming academic year, any money-saving tips are to be savoured. Given the volume of pasta consumed in an average Italian household, some predicted that the suggestion could reduce energy use by a huge 47 per cent. Time to get used to meals that are a touch more al dente?

Collaborations across university departments can often lead to unexpected research. But academics in the humanities and health sciences departments at the University of Adelaide have somehow found a way to tie together existential philosophy, the cartoons of Asterix and recovery from musculoskeletal injuries. Cacofonix, the oft-assaulted village bard in the series created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, could be an inspiration to musicians faced with setbacks, the authors argue, suggesting that the mishaps faced by the hapless singer should be seen as a case study in playing through pain. “By collaborating, experts in seemingly disparate fields can make contributions to knowledge that neither would have envisaged independently,” said Philip Weinstein, one of the study’s authors. As for whether anyone else has ever felt that such a study needed to exist, that’s another matter…

Universities nervous at the prospect of what a new British government will bring will be hoping that the views of the new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, have matured since he was 22. Upon his elevation to the Treasury, a column he wrote in 1997 for The Daily Telegraph emerged, headlined “People shouldn’t go to university, they should make money instead”. Fresh from his own experiences at the University of Cambridge and Harvard University – so poverty-inducing that he was presumably forced to pen columns for national newspapers just to get by – a young Mr Kwarteng opined that universities “probably inhibit talent”. His evidence? Degree-less Shakespeare was a better writer than Milton and Sir Isaac Newton was more productive when his institution, Cambridge, was forced to close because of the plague. The new chancellor’s colleagues don’t appear to have followed his advice, however: of the 31 ministers attending Liz Truss’ Cabinet, 35 per cent went to Oxbridge, and a further 29 per cent attended institutions that are members of the Russell Group.

Securing funds for expensive university projects is often said to be a kind of alchemy. So it is hardly surprising that the University of East Anglia, seeking a fundraiser for its revamped Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, felt that someone with more magical talents could fit the bill. According to a job posting on, the institution was looking for a “chief alchemist” to join its team in Norwich to “create the necessary resources to support” the centre as it approaches its 50th anniversary in 2023. The advert makes it clear, however, that whoever is appointed will be expected to fall back on more traditional fundraising techniques such as identifying philanthropically minded corporate and high net-worth individual donors who may wish to chip in to keep the centre going. Perhaps the new recruit may find it easier to turn base metals into gold.

In the scramble to stand out in a crowded field, universities have sometimes been known to over-egg their achievements. But the University of Leicester has found that it is possible to push things too far. The institution has been rapped by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over a “misleading” tweet that claimed its “arts and humanities research is number 1 in the UK”. While the institution did perform strongly in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework – as shown by Times Higher Education’s own analysis of the results – the ASA found that Leicester’s claim to be top of the pile was based on its own internal calculations that were not included in the tweet, and thus the message was misleading and should be removed. A cautionary tale for marketing departments everywhere.

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