How to create a world-class university

The Grattan Institute is advertising a lecture on “How to create a world-class university” by Andrew Hamilton, VC of Oxford and previously Provost at Yale. As the ad says, “Hamilton has been a leader in two universities that are world class by any measure”.

Still, if we take his experience as representative the obvious answer to the question is of how to create a world-class university is “found it in 1700, or preferably earlier”. Hamilton may have some significant achievements, but the creation of a world class university doesn’t appear to be among them.

That’s a snark, but it conceals a serious point. The fact is that (with a handful of marginal exceptions) the leading universities in most developed countries, including the US, UK and Australia, are those that were leading universities in 1900. There is very little evidence to suggest that anything done by a vice-chancellor or provost can achieve more than marginal improvements in the relative ranking of a new university. Conversely (and I won’t name the Australian examples I have in mind) even spectacularly bad management can’t do much to damage a university that has been around for 100 years or more.

That in turn means that common assumptions about the benefits of competition in the university sector are almost entirely wrong. In the absence of effective market mechanisms by which well-run firms prosper and grow while badly-run firms shrink and die, competition is essentially meaningless.

The expansion of competition between Australian universities has led to huge spending on marketing and advertising, and the growth of a large supporting bureaucracy, but it’s done nothing to improve standards.

Carbon tax – instant reax

The proposed carbon tax is a substantial improvement on the heavily compromised emissions trading scheme agreed between the Rudd government and the Opposition under Malcolm Turnbull. Although there is substantial compensation for emissions-intensive industry it is temporary and based on historic emissions level, so that the incentive to reduce emissions is not compromised. The design of the compensation package for households is also welcome.

The government has avoided the temptation to pretend that everyone will be better off, and has taken the reasonable position that high income households do not need to be compensated for the introduction of necessary reforms. This has permitted the very welcome measure of raising the income tax threshold and thereby taking more than a million low-income workers out of the income tax system.

While the primary focus of the package is, correctly, on the imposition of a price on carbon emissions, there are a range of supporting measures designed to encourage energy efficiency and innovation. On the whole, these seem more carefully designed than the measures introduced under previous governments.

The revolt against Murdochracy

Continuing on the theme of #newscorpfail, the ever-expanding scandal surrounding hacking, bribery, perjury and obstruction of justice by News Corporation in England has already brought about the closure of the venerable (at least in years) News of the World newspaper, but looks likely to go much further, with significant implications for the Murdoch press in Australia.

The scandal over hacking and other criminal behavior has now become an all-out revolt of UK politicians against Murdoch’s immense political power , which has had successive Prime Ministers dancing attendance on him, and rushing to confer lucrative favors on his News Corporation. Those, like Labour leader Ed Miliband, who are relative cleanskins, are making the running, while PM David Cameron, very close to the most corrupt elements of News, is scrambling to cover himself.

The hacking and bribery scandals appear (as far as we know) to be confined to the UK, but the greater scandal of Murdoch’s corruption of the political process and misuse of press power is even worse in Australia. The Australian and other Murdoch publications filled with lies and politically slanted reporting aimed at furthering both Murdoch’s political agenda and his commercial interests. Whereas there is still lively competition in the British Press, Murdoch has a print monopoly in major cities like Brisbane.

It seems likely that News International will be refused permission for its impending takeover of BSkyB on the grounds that it is not “fit and proper” for such a role. That would have important implications for Australia.

Regardless of how the current scandal plays out, we need to remember that while the productions of News Corporation be papers, what they print is certainly not news.

Response to Greg Sheridan

Greg Sheridan was upset about my piece in the Fin, attacking his claim that the effects of Australian action on climate change will “will have an impact on the global environment so tiny it will be unmeasurable.” I’ll respond to the details of his objections over the fold, but let’s first tackle the substantive question. Australia is currently responsible for a about 2 per cent of global emissions. Under business as usual projections, our emissions were expected to grow by 20 to 30 per cent between 2000 and 2020. If we achieve the target of 5 per cent below 2000 emission, that implies a reduction of 25 per cent relative to business as usual, 0.5 per cent of global emissions. That’s about 1 per cent of what is needed if the world is to cut total emissions by 50 per cent over the next couple of decades, as is necessary in a stabilisation scenario.

That’s a small step that is not going to solve the problem, but neither is it “so tiny as to be immeasurable”. In fact, it’s pretty typical of Australia’s weight in international affairs – small relative to the big players like the US and China, but large relative to our share of world population. As a comparison, Australia currently has about 1500 troops in Afghanistan, out of a total (ISAF and Afghan army) force of over 150 000. Would Sheridan want to argue that, since our troops are less than 1 per cent of the total, their effects are so immeasurably small that we might as well do nothing[1]. Well, no. It appears that Australia is immeasurably tiny only when we are doing things US Republicans don’t like.

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Bad news from the Northern hemisphere

Another really bad employment report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment has been essentially static for the last couple of months, and most of the ground gained in 2010 has been lost. Unsurprisingly, public sector job cuts are leading the way downwards, as the stimulus fades into memory and austerity proceeds at the state and local level. In this context, it’s hard to know what outcome of the current negotiations over the debt limit would be worse: unconditional surrender to Republican demands for yet more spending cuts, or a failure to pass any legislation, with consequences that remain unclear[1].It’s hard to see US unemployment falling substantially any time soon. The decline in the participation rate (it’s fallen by about 3 percentage points of the population, equal to about 5 per cent of the labor force) means that the standard measure seriously understates the severity of the problem. If employment growth were to resume, lots of people would re-enter the labor market, so that unemployment would not decline fast.

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Reasons to be cheerful, Part 3: Energy efficiency

There are plenty of reasons to be gloomy about the prospects of stabilising the global climate, but there are also some promising developments, so I’ve started a series on this topic. Part 1 on peak gasoline herePart 2 on solar PV here

This post is about energy efficiency, which is often neglected, but is likely to be the biggest single source of emissions reductions over the next few decades. I’m going to define efficiency fairly narrowly, to refer to technologies that deliver essentially the same services using less energy than those they replace: so, for example, I’m including more efficient airconditioners, but not “smart” systems that cut off when demand is high.

The shorter version is

1. With existing technologies or straightforward extensions, it’s possible to double energy efficiency (reduce energy use per unit of energy services by 50 per cent) at relatively low cost and with marginal changes in performance.
2. With rising carbon prices over time, it’s likely that further improvements can be made in many areas

3. Concerns about possible rebound effects (aka the Jevons paradox) are misplaced

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