Universities and stratification

One of the big themes in the debate over university education has been that we should have a more differentiated system, rather than a ‘one-size fits all’ solution. This view is shared by market-oriented reformers and by some traditionalists, who look back nostalgically to the days when each state had one university, catering to a small elite, while the rest went to tech, or teachers college or (for the majority) the school of hard knocks. In the idealised view, universities would compete with diverse offerings, and the informed market choices of consumers (18-year olds and their parents) would produce an ideal outcome.

In reality, the quasi-market policies that have been dominant for the last couple of decades have reduced diversity on all dimensions except one. Before the reforms that began in the 1980s, the tertiary sector included many different types of institutions (unis, CAES, institutes of technology and TAFE), and the 1970-vintage universities consciously sought to provide an innovative alternative to the long-established sandstones. Now, there are just universities and TAFE. Policies encouraging universities to nominate “flagship” programs produced the unsurprising (but apparently unexpected) result that everyone went for MBAs and no-one for pure mathematics. Responsiveness to consumer demand produced plenty of courses in cinema studies and very few in classics. And so on. There are still some attempts at doing things differently, such as the “Melbourne model”, but overall the pattern is one of identical responses to identical incentives.

On the other hand, the reforms have amplified long-standing inequalities in wealth and status between universities. Despite the rhetoric of competition, the relative rankings of Australian universities were determined more than 100 years ago, when the sandstone universities were established, followed by the precursors of the “Dawkins universities”. The reforms did not shake these rankings, but they widened the gap between the sandstones and the 1970-vintage unis – before the reforms, a university was a university, and status differences were much less important.

Read More »

Exercise again

I can’t bring myself to post about the latest manoeuvring for numbers in the Parliament, and nothing much is going to happen on policy until that’s all resolved. So, since exercise seems to be one of the topics in which nearly everyone is interested (and there are lots of other blogs devoted to the topic on which *everyone* is interested), I thought I would expand on my last post. That post made it seem as if I’m focused on running, but actually I try for a more diverse portfolio
* Group training, three or four times a week
* Running, 5k or so, twice a week, mostly on treadmill or soft surfaces. I was running further and on hard surfaces but cut back when I started getting knee pain
* Cycling, 20-30km, once or twice a week, plus riding into work intermittently
* Swimming, 500m-1K, two or three times a week
That seems to be enough to keep my muscles a bit sore most of the time, but to avoid obvious injury to my joints. Following some problems a few months ago, I’ve been getting some useful advice from my physiotherapist and a sports podiatrist on how to avoid knee injuries from running.

Evidence-based policy

As I mentioned a while back, I’ve been doing a bit of running and, unsurprisingly, had knee problems. One response has been to take drinks made of a foul-tasting powder containing glucosamine sulphate and chondritin, which has been widely held out as having promise in relieving symptoms of osteoarthritis. There were some promising case studies, enough to prompt both widespread use, including by me, and a full-scale trial and meta-analysis.

The tests results are now in, and I have mixed feelings in reporting that the both glucosamine sulphate and chondritin appear to be useless. (H/T Neurologica, but link isn’t loading). I was tempted to finish off what was left, on the theory that it might be doing some good anyway, but my commitment to evidence-based policy, along with the fact that the stuff tastes foul, has prevailed.

Out it goes. Now, if anyone can recommend a good broad-spectrum placebo, I’m in the market.

Weekend reflections

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit. As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

‘States rights’ comes to Europe — Crooked Timber

Looking at the Sarkozy government’s attempt at ethnic cleansing of the Roma, The Economist’s Charlemagne had the following observation about

the vociferous protest from the European Parliament. On September 9th it passed a strongly worded resolution denouncing discrimination against the Roma, and singled out the commission for its “late and limited response”. The row thus brings out the contradictions of European democracy: an elected national government finds that its resort to populism is confronted by the European Commission, an appointed body, and by the European Parliament, a distant chamber elected by a minority of voters.

It struck me that you could replace “national” with ” Southern state”, “European Commission” with “US Supreme Court” and “European Parliament” with “US Federal government”, and the analogy with Brown vs Board of Education would be just about perfect (except that it’s the Parliament driving the Commission and not vice versa). Then I noticed that Chris had proposed an almost identical substitution in relation to economic policy here.

This is the first time I can recall the European Parliament playing a key role in a conflict between the central institutions of the EU, such as the Commission and a member state. If the Parliament and Commission prevail, as they should, it seems to me that this will change the effective political structure of the EU, in the direction of a federal democracy. I’d be interested in the thoughts of those closer to the action.

Links to a parallel universe

A few stories about what theorists of postmodernism call “the social construction of reality” on the political right

* The Irish science minister, who planned to launch a book denouncing evolution as a hoax, has pulled out after a lot of criticism and some embarrassing revelations about the author

* Newt Gingrich is touting a new version of birtherism, developed by Dinesh D’Souza, formerly one of the bright young things at the Hoover Institute

* The standard ploy among anti-science amateurs has been to compare themselves to Galileo. But now Robert Sungenis and Robert Bennett have taken the War on Science to its next logical stopping place, with a work in favor of geocentrism, entitled Galileo Was Wrong: The Church Was Right

* The tobacco industry is secretly funding a “grassroots” campaign against plain packaging for cigarettes. This is obviously close to home, but tobacco money spreads far and wide, supporting anyone willing to tell lies about health and environmental science. Among their many targets was Rachel Carson.

* On the global warming front, Lord Monckton is still at it. Here (via Tim Lambert) is a demolition of his latest nonsense, from Alden Griffiths.

A particularly interesting feature of all this is what might be called “cafeteria craziness”. I’m referring to the kind of person, common on the Australian right, who takes the anti-science line on climate change, DDT and so on, but is indignant about being associated with the (virtually identical) arguments of creationists and geocentrists. Or, even pickier, those who are embarrassed by Monckton’s claims of a plot to establish a communist world government, but still want to cite him as a scientific authority