Stratification in tertiary education

When people call for a university system more like that of the US, they commonly have in mind the idea that Australia should have institutions like Harvard and Princeton, and a belief that more competition in tertiary education would bring this about. There are a couple of obvious problems with this.

First, high-status universities like this provide undergraduate education only a tiny proportion of young Americans. Around 1 per cent of the college age cohort attends high-status private institutions like the Ivy League unis, Chicago and Stanford, and this proportion has been declining steadily over time. Most of the Ivies enrol no more undergrads than they did in the 1950s. Adjusting for population, an Australian Ivy League would consist of a single institution enrolling perhaps a thousand students a year.

Second, the US experience shows that the idea of competition between universities is a nonsense. Harvard, Princeton and the rest were the leading universities in North America before the US even existed, and they are still the leaders today. The newest of the really high status universities is probably Stanford, founded in 1885. Competition between universities is pretty much the same as the competition between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington General.s

The reality of US education is a highly stratified system. Below the high-status private universities are the “flagship” state universities, which educate around 10 per cent of the college age cohort (again, a proportion that is declining, or at best stable).

After that, there are lower-tier state universities, two-year community colleges and, worst of all, for-profit degree mills like the University of Phoenix which exist largely to lure low-income students into debt and extract Federal grant money, with only a minority ever completing their courses.

Australia has always had a stratified system, but to a much lesser extent. (More on the history when I get a chance). The big question facing policy is whether to increase stratification, by widening the gap between the “Group of 8” and the rest, or to treat tertiary education like other public services, available to all who can benefit from it, at the best quality we can provide for everyone.

University education systems mirror and recreate the society to which they belong. A highly stratified system, like that in the US and UK, reflects and reinforces a class-bound society in which the best thing you can do in life is to choose the right parents. We should be aiming at less stratification, not more.

Update Just by chance, one of the lead articles in the NY Times advises that, thanks to increased international intakes, the number of places for domestic undergraduates at the Ivies has fallen sharply

39 thoughts on “Stratification in tertiary education

  1. “at the best quality we can provide for everyone” [scil. without stratification]. What a piece of fluff. Next you will be telling us that you, one of the scarce good teacher-scholars, are happy at the idea of giving your teaching time to kids with IQs of 105!
    I know, I know, your weekly exercises in humility teaching Sunday School are so uplifting and instructive apart from the glow of virtue imparted.

  2. Honestly, i’m happy to talk to anyone who’s prepared to listen – hence the blog. I actually have a research position, but I take on some undergraduate classes because I enjoy it, as long as I don’t have to do grading.

    And yes, I think that most of the population could benefit from learning the kinds of things I want to teach. Certainly, having taught the private-school educated elite at sandstones, and what yuri thinks of as the lower orders at regional unis, I was at least as happy with the latter group.

    Worth remembering that exactly yuri’s arguments used to be heard explaining why working class kids should leave school at Year 10.

  3. Google “Dr. Michio Kaku America Has a Secret Weapon” on Youtube.

    In this video, Dr. Michio Kaku nails the failure of the modern US education system. Pay no attention to the galoot next to Dr. Kaku.

  4. Mind, someone who it’s taken the whole effort of Scotch College to drag up to a 90% TER is demonstrably more expensive to educate to that level than someone who got a 90% TER at Bogan Valley Underfunded, and it’s only reasonable to assume that that will continue at a tertiary level. I think we should look at whether consideration should be given to the cost of education thus far when deciding whether someone should receive commonwealth support for their continued education.

  5. Quite apart from any hidden agenda to deliver university assets into private hands and corporate control, or at least greater corporate influence (and I’m not saying there is such an agenda), the broad thrust of any change in Australian policy will to try to push down the costs of producing graduates. And that would hardly be a change. Our political leaders do not see universities (and tertiary education generally) as a class privilege, although that may be the result; they look primarily at the cost of producing the skills needed in the broad economy, along with all the other factors influencing labour costs at whatever level of skill and expertise. They do not necessarily do this in a systematic or coherent manner, hence the argument in Australia is about driving costs (at least to the public sector) down, rather than considering the broad needs for skills and expertise (say) through a workforce development strategy, much less through an industry policy (which recent events show we don’t have other than in a Clayton’s bottled form). And funding is not provided by the state, and cannot be raised through investments by or inducements to the corporate sector, will be extracted where possible from the pockets of the students and their parents (and their successors in generations to come?). To see this future, just look to the US example, and increasingly to the UK case.

  6. Clear, concise, topical, myth-busting analysis.

    Thanks again Professor for this great public service.

  7. @John Quiggin
    I applaud your sentiments. Like a majority of my academic friends (I think it would be a majority) you really do care about those willing to take opportunities being given them. But you have avoided (I don’t think you necessarily missed it) and introduced class, socio-economic class certainly, which is not the same as nature’s brutal classification even unassisted by environmentally caused epigenetics and other environmental factors in the broadest sense. Even quite respectable researchers can include a fair bit of nonsense about IQ (cf. Lynn & Vanhenen who don’t seem to have noticed the very high correlation between measured IQs and urbanisation, notably amongst the suddenly quite smart Irish) but even James Richard Flynn of the eponymous Flynn effect, essentially a man of the left, doesn’t deny the importance of bell shaped distributions (funny btw how many solemn discussants will fail to notice that there is no one e.g. English population for the purpose of making reliable Gaussian calculations: for many centuries until reversal about 140 years ago the smart and successful outbred the poor and unsuccessful with the result, e.g. that the much maligned Cyril Burt found a distinctly non-Gaussian excess of English children with IQs over 170. And consider now assortative mating in the Ivy League which of course doesn’t have much to do with prosperous WASPs any longer – indeed the iconoclastic Ron Unz has shown them to be discriminated against just to extend the periphery of our discussion a little further in honour of its contrarian value).

    But I haven’t conceded you enough virtue Prof Q. I mean an unusual degee of honest candour for an academic controversialist. You don’t want to do the gradings of those you are happy to talk to. And one to one (or small group) tuition would sometimes be painful as you contemplated the fact that you only have a limited number of productive hours in your lifetime and, regrettably your brilliance wasn’t going to have a marvellous multiplier effect through even the most conscientious of these plodders….

  8. @Collin Street
    Something like that has been happening at Oxford and Cambridge colleges for quite a long time. If you had a smart but not super smart boy whom you wanted to get in to father’s old college you’d better send him to one of thd remaining good grammar schools than to Eton.
    BTW I also spoke to an IT specialist in London recently who was very happy with what he had got by passing the 11 plus or whatever for him was his way into a good grammar school but lamented the fate of his brother who hadn’t…. Life ain’t fair…

  9. @yuri
    If you can’t see the logical gap between a premise that says something like ‘People’s IQs are unequal’ and a conclusion that says something like ‘Australia should have a university system more like the US one’ or ‘Australia’s university system should move in the direction of greater stratification’, should we attribute that oversight to deficiencies in your education, or what?

  10. Totally agree ProfQ. One of Australia’s strengths is that someone coming from a “Tier 2” university is not at a disadvantage like those who came from the equivalent university in the US/UK/France. I think any push to have a Princeton of Australia grossly underestimates firstly how difficult and costly it is to convert very good G08 universities toward the global elite status, and secondly the impact of relegating those who did not go to that university to second class citizens. Bravo on speaking out!

  11. @J-D
    And if you can’t see that I implied nothing like the fallacy you purport to detect then you are one of those that I would have hoped would shut up in tutorials and not require protection from the smart guys and gals.
    It is true that one would need at least one premise embodying a value judgment to argue from a factual premise about a distribution of IQs to something like stratification as a desirable element of a national university system (though I hope I don’t need to draw attention to my obvious preference for getting value out of the expenditure of the marginal dollar by government and the and my acknowledgment that there are both private and public interests and benefits in the provision of education).
    What I am sure Prof Q didn’t miss was that my purpose was to explore and test *his* argument – if a little impolitely at the outset.

  12. Without arguing about what AU ought to be doing, I’d question some of Joihn Q’s comments about US universities.

    One must always take rankings with a giant pails of salt, but at least in science and engineering areas, having seen a detailed discussion of the NRC analyses by a Dean of Science: the conclusion was:
    6 schools tended rarely to be out of the top 6-8 in most departments:
    in no particular order:
    Harvard, MIT (1861), Princeton
    Stanford, UC Berkeley (1868), Caltech (1891)

    Curiously, that means 4 of the top 6 are in either Boston or San Francisco. I’m not exactly sure what that means.

    This accords well with my experience, although I’ve only lectured at 3 of them, but have connections/connections/contacts with all 6, and of course, here in Silicon Valley, people are from all over, including quite a few from Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial College in UK, so there is some calibration.

    The rest of the top 20 in US tend to be a mix of more private schools and the top state schools. Some of the schools (like Stanford) are pretty good at giving scholarships.

    Among the many world lists is<a href=""TImes and Shanghai. The latter is especially useful as includes ranks by schools and departments, and one can dig deeper in the lists.

    For better or worse, I’d say schools really are competitive in various ways.

  13. @yuri

    There is a problem with your idea of stratifying via a distribution of IQs is that effort rather than naturally endowed intellect is the key determinant for success at a graduate and post-graduate careers. This is why clever but lazy people do not get into good institutions in the first place and certainly do not get good jobs afterwards.

    Also, your comment about Oxbridge is interesting but generally useless for two reasons: (1) you choose two colleges to interview at, and (2) school background or gender only play a difference where there are two equally matched students. Saying that you’d pull your kid out of Eton to a grammar school down the road presupposes that the grammar school hasn’t already sent dozens of kids to Oxbridge and the admissions board at the two colleges know this.

    In any case, while human ability and work ethic are distributed it is foolish to think that it is an excuse to stratify the university system in Australia. Look to France to see what happens when you put in place a rigid hierarchy in tertiary education.

  14. I dont think IQ is a good measure of intelligence as it leaves a lot out (its very specific) ,you can learn to be good at the test, it is somewhat culture specific ,and (as Hugh McKay claims ) it is not correlated to any kind of life outcome -not Nobel prizes ,income ,goodness ,academic success, happiness, etc -nothing. Hard to believe that last one but McKay thinks the current trend of wanting to maximise childrens IQ is a big fat red herring. A far better indicator of academic success is the ability to delay gratification.

    Putting my idealistic dreamers hat on- I think education should be free for those who cant afford it and not so focused on the apparent necessity of future income earning capacity to the exclusion of everything else. There are many potential benefits of education (such as the development of much of what we call civilisation) not just economic ones . Phillip Adams had a guy on to explain some recent research about creative thinking. It doesnt happen so well when you are busy ,focused on a task, or trying to solve a problem. It works best when you are idle ,day dreaming ,bored ,dreaming ,distracted ,resting -perhaps not even thinking openly/consciously about the problem. If the educational institutions of the past had had no room for dreamers we wouldnt be anywhere near where we are today.

    Maybe the internet will help with the make it free part, but I wouldnt like to see the disappearance of places for people to sit about and talk s*it to each other face to face. The powers that be are afraid of that process.

  15. Can someone explain the rationale for wanting ‘elite’ universities in Australia ? As PrQ notes, the elite unis in America have been the same elite unis forever, so good luck with any Australian uni ever being seen in the same regard. Also, the video Iconoclast pointed to shows the USA’s reliance on elite uni’s attracting the very brightest from elsewhere in the world to then stay in the USA and create new companies, is likely in the future to be a losing bet.

    Einstein had relativity nutted out well before getting to Princeton.

    If Australia wants to be competitive in new technologies, then increasing, rather than decreasing, funding to the CSIRO would be a good place to start.

  16. > Can someone explain the rationale for wanting ‘elite’ universities in Australia ?

    Status anxiety rooted in personal insecurity. Same motivation as sees people dressing up as fighter pilots, giving each other knighthoods, or arranging for mass spontaneous demonstrations of happiness in the form of large-scale coordinated gymnastics performances.

  17. @yuri
    What I detected in your previous comment was not fallacious reasoning, but weaselling. Obviously you’re too sharp to commit yourself explicitly to the sort of simple-minded fallacy I pointed to, but if I haven’t represented fairly what your position would be if you had the nerve to state it explicitly, then what explicit statement of your position are you prepared to commit yourself to? How, in practical terms, is it different from the simple-minded fallacy? I have no problem in aligning myself with Professor Quiggin’s stance that we should be aiming at less stratification, not more; will you deign to let us know where you stand on that? And, either way, what relevance do you think there is to your remarks about IQ?

  18. Silly question but has anyone here actually attended one of the “global elite” top ranking universities?

    I did my graduate education at a global elite (think in the global league table rankings between 1-3). Social class didn’t play a massive role, or IQ, but self-discipline and hard work. The best performer in the class was a teetotal who liked socialising but couldn’t drink. Therefore the work produced was consistently insanely good while the rest of us who overloaded our diaries (high-achieving people tend to do a lot at once apparently) and our bodies had to make do with being part of the 1st Standard Deviation in the score distribution!

  19. The other obvious problem with trying to emulate the best universities in the US (enrollment etc. aside) is that it’s impossible — no-one is going to come up with the billions upon billions of unencumbered funds they have to actually be the best with (last time I checked, Harvard had over 30 billion)

  20. ” I did my graduate education at a global elite… Social class didn’t play a massive role, or IQ, but self-discipline and hard work. “

    Don’t kid yourself. If you’re comparing a person with an IQ of 115 to a group of people with IQs of 115-140, it may seem like IQ doesn’t matter. But it matters quite a bit for that average person, with an IQ of 100, who struggles to get through undergraduate work at a state university.

    In graduate school, I found that cleverness was no substitute for hard work, and that was a bit of a shock for me. But it was a shock precisely because school was so easy before that. For school, I can tell you firsthand that cleverness can usually substitute for discipline.

    OTOH, for doctoral students, graduate school is more like work than school, and the weaker students have already been weeded out, so the discipline becomes more (relatively) important at that stage.

  21. Great blog post John.

    Will Vice-Chancellors speak as one voice on this matter? I suspect that some of the unis, Melbourne in particular, might support this move – it puts more distance between them and the “also rans” (non-Go8), draws more funding for them, potentially increases their global status, etc.

  22. @John Mashey

    Maybe I need to explain better what I mean by competition here. The central idea of competition is that good firms (innovative, efficient, low cost, high quality, good service) will drive out bad. Since no firm can stay good forever, and new firms are starting up all the time, we expect to see the set of top firms (in an industry, or across industries) change over time, and that’s what we observe in reality. By contrast, if we look at the top 10, or 20, or 50 universities in the US, they are pretty much the same set now as they were 50 or 100 years ago. In particular fields, the rankings shift a bit as one department rises or falls, but never by very much.

  23. I think John Mashey touches on an issue of fostering competition – the big brand US unis have developed clusters of industries around them to reinforce themselves. You might be able to create a Stanford elsewhere, but harder to move silicon valley as well? same with the big Boston area unis and the industries around them.

    It is only when employers stop elevating name brand degrees, above their relative worth, that things will change.

  24. When I hear talk about people wishing Australian universities were more like American ones it is typically in the context of the desire for more specialisation among academic staff, particularly at the undergraduate level. That is, the desire for more specialised teaching staff who are capable and talented educators which would allow the staff who would prefer to focus on research to do so. Obviously at the post-graduate level you’d want a lot more contact with research staff but at the undergraduate level the quality of teaching strikes me as far more important than what rank the lecturer is on RePEc. I know many students I studied with lamented having lecturers who they felt were rather disengaged with their students and the course material.

    Of course this is just my anecdotal experience, and having never attended a US institution I’m not sure how well they do this either. I would imagine some do it well and others don’t.

    I know my personal experience in a BEcon/BCom program at UQ was very hit and miss in terms of having lecturers that seemed genuinely interested in teaching. Many gave an impression that they viewed it as a bit of a chore. I found the Com lecturers noticeably better than the Econ lecturers in this regard but to be fair there were stand outs, both good and bad, in both fields. JQ undertook a guest lecture in one of the economics courses I took which was very enjoyable.

  25. I think you are all reading way to much into this. Christopher Pyne is just upset because, after attending a private school in Adelaide, he only got a lowly law degree from a university that doesn’t make the top 200 in the world rankings.

  26. @tgs

    Thanks for kind words about my lecture.

    The US situation is much worse than Oz. The high-status researchers don’t lecture undergrads much, but their replacements (mostly) aren’t specialised teaching staff in the sense of teaching-focused academics at Oz unis. They are poorly paid adjuncts, who often have only a week’s notice that they will be teaching a course, have to work at multiple institutions to stitch together a living etc.

  27. Dear John,

    Ivy League, flagship state universities, lesser state universities, community colleges, rip-off degree mills. But what about the many (hundreds at least) of private liberal arts colleges across the US? In my (admittedly brief) experience of a US graduate school many of the best graduate students came from these small institutions, typically devoted to good undergraduate teaching rather than research.

  28. @Andrew Gleeson

    I don’t know as much about liberal arts colleges as I should. But my understanding is that they are a pretty small segment of the sector. This story says that only 130 colleges now qualify for the traditional definition of “liberal arts”.

    My impression is that the good ones typically have 1-2000 students, which would make them collectively account for maybe 2 per cent of the age cohort.

  29. @Andrew Gleeson
    It’s a bit misleading to say these institutions are devoted to undergraduate teaching and not research. In fact, staff are expected to produce a very significant research output for tenure and often maintain it after tenure.

  30. @John Quiggin
    This is certainly a worthy topic, and end-to-end good educational systems are rather crucial for any wealthy, well-developed country that wants to stay that way.

    1) I make no claims as to the extent any of the following applies to Australia: I have lectured at ANU, U of Sydney, U of Queensland, UWA, James Cook, and if a recall aright UNSW and U of Melbourne, but that was in the 1990s, so easily out of date.

    2) When evaluating the nature of competition, one has to look carefully at the structure and time-constants involved. General Electric has been very big for a long time. AT&T / Bell System was huge and dominant for a long time, and for many decades, Bell Labs was likely the premier industrial research lab anywhere. ExxonMobil has been big for a long time. In some industries, the power of incumbency lasts a long time, in others, the competition is so savage and fast-moving that that quite powerful companies can fall quickly, and if skilled employees are mobile, they move.
    IBM was long completely dominant in the computer industry, and still powerful, but nothing like as strong as they were in the 1960s. Digital Equipment Corporation was the superstar of minicomputers in the 1980s, quite profitable in 1988 … and gone within 10 years, acquired by Compaq.
    In the 1990s, Microsoft was incredibly powerful, and still large … but by now, Apple, Google, etc lead, and smartphones mostly run some UNIX descendant, not Windows.

    Even areas change: in the 1940s, California was still a bit of a remote backwater, (even though UC Berkeley was already pretty strong), and Stanford was a good school, but not a serious challenge to places like Harvard or MIT. Stanford Dean of Engineering Frederick was long frustrated that his students would go back East (Boston, New York, NJ especially) for the real high-tech jobs, hence encouraged two of his students (Hewlett and Packard) to start a local business instead.
    Later, he got William Shockley to come back from NJ to Palo Alto to start a semiconductor business … from which most chip companies are descended. But still, even in the 1960s and 1970s, in much of high-tech, the places to be were (NJ-Bell labs, NY – IBM, and especially Boston, given MIT and Harvard, and Rt 128).

    Boston is still strong, but Silicon Valley overtook it, for which there is a well-done history by Anna Lee Saxenian, Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128. (She’s very sharp.)

    3) How about universities? Incumbency in high rank tends to perpetuate itself even more than in companies, given a few factors:
    a) A strong reputation can draw good people, sometimes more than a fair share.

    b) Tenure tends to make people less mobile than in industry, and 2-academic couples are absolutely nightmarish to move, especially to areas where there is only one major university. The SF Bay Area has enough universities to make this easier, but it is a real rarity to see a couple both get hired at the same school, in the same department. Stanford got a pair like that of brilliant young researchers who were bicoastal at the time, one at MIT and one at Caltech, but I hear it was not easy getting that to happen.

    c) More-established schools are more-practiced at getting grants and some get good income from technology licensing or stock from startups.

    d) In places where alumni donations really matter, incumbency is a terrific advantage, as successful alumni naturally give more to their own schools. See US list, sort in descending order by 2013).
    Of course, Harvard, Yale and Princeton rank highly, but many other, newer schools compete well with the other, older Ivy League schools.

    e) Let us try another area, with a much longer history (which they always remind us of).
    In UK, Cambridge recently celebrated 800 years, and one of its colleges. Trinity is reputed to be no lower than the 4th wealthiest landowner in UK. Of course, Oxford is even older and not shy about saying so. All that is serious incumbency advantage. Still, if you look at rankings, a relative newcomer, about 100-150 years old, Imperial College gives them strong competition in some fields.

    Interestingly, as pressure on funding as increased, a few years ago, Cambridge hired a terrific scholar and administrator Allison Richard as Vice-Chancellor, somewhat to the dismay of the old boy network, who harrumphed a lot. She’d been Provost @ Yale, whose endowment is #2 in US, which had something to do with the choice. Cambridge fund-raising changed dramatically … and other UK schools took note.
    (My wife was undergrad @ Cambridge, PhD @ Imperial, and we attend the local Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race Dinners every year, and have often met Cambridge Vice-Chancellors and Imperial College leaders when they visit. My wife introduced Allison at an alumni event, noting that she was exceptionally well-qualified to run Cambridge, among other things, because she’d studied howler monkeys :-))

    f) Anyway, I’d say there is intense competition at various levels, and (I think) at least some of it is good, but I also think the time-constant for changes of rank in universities is much longer than those in at least some businesses.

    3) In any case, I’d say tertiary education may be in for a lot of turmoil. MOOCs are interesting (no panacea), but it is fascinating to watch the competition among schools in that turf. Having been an instructor for several years while doing PhD, I sure think replacing huge lectures by MOOCs is usually a win, especially if it saves more time for direct faculty-student interaction in small groups.
    My wife took a Coursera class on optimization by University of Melbourne and thought it was very well done.

    4) Finally, in many ways, some of the most exciting possibilities for change may not be at the top, but in the middle. A few years back, I was on an external review team forRepublic Polytechnic in Singapore, and I was quite impressed by their approach, and intense version of Problem Based Learning. (Of course, Singapore is not exactly typical, but there are good lessons.) This basically offers 3-year courses for 16-19-year-olds. The first week, one lesson is how to use the Internet to search and assess the credibility of what they find. I sat in on several classes, including one for 16-year olds on statistics (Poisson arrival processes) and another on Internet website systems design for 19-year-olds. I saw students I’d easily have imagined hiring as junior team members who could be productive quickly.

    But most striking was the RP explanation: “Our goal is to take second and third quartile students and help them be as good as they can be, and ready to go into jobs and be productive quickly. Some will catch fire academically and go on to university, but most will go get jobs.” The other interesting thing was the use of a permanent cadre/faculty who developed course materials and taught some classes, combined with a large number of mostly part-timers who needed to understand the material and be good coaches for the students, but who might not have been able to create the courses themselves. The woman who taught the 19-year-olds website design was actually a realtor.

    Now, this was Singapore, and this might not work everywhere, but I cannot but help think that approaches like this (or the apprenticeship style in Germany) do a better job for lots of students than traditional tertiary education. These students were used to working in ever-changing teams, working on projects …every day … and presenting their results and getting critiqued by teacher and the other students, and getting a grade every day.

    I think at least some competition is pretty useful, as well as systems that allow for different experiments and priorities, as one size does not fit all. There is also room for a wide range of funding mixes between private and public.

  31. JQ @27:

    The US situation is much worse than Oz. The high-status researchers don’t lecture undergrads much, but their replacements (mostly) aren’t specialised teaching staff in the sense of teaching-focused academics at Oz unis. They are poorly paid adjuncts, who often have only a week’s notice that they will be teaching a course, have to work at multiple institutions to stitch together a living etc.

    The situation of sessional academics in Australian universities is not all that far from that of the “poorly paid adjuncts” in the US, with perhaps the main difference being that we’re not yet as poorly paid, but the short notice, multi-institution employment, etc., is something I have direct experience of, as the growing reliance on sessionals for teaching gigs that go well beyond the tutoring and guest lectures done by PhD candidates as part of what was once considered their academic apprenticeship.

  32. @Paul Norton
    And every year the NTEU promises to do something about the adjunctification of higher ed (as well as the erosion of conditions more generally). And every year the NTEU settles for a pay rise for the full-time academics instead.

  33. Some data inputs on where Australia stands in higher education. First, in the new Times Higher Ed Supp table on ratings among 100 new (under 50 years old) universities, Australia has 14 – as many as the UK, more than America; . Obviously, that’s partly because the US and the USA got many universities earlier, but you’d still have to say that it supports ProfQ’s position fairly strongly – legacy effects are powerful.
    Looking at the THES list of the top 200 unis ( Australia has only 7, equal fifth with Switzerland and Canada. If you weight for both score and population size (yes, yes, rough as guts, but quick and dirty) Australia comes 10th out of 24, three times as bad as Switzerland and well below the UK but just ahead of the USA and well ahead of Canada.
    Out of the THES top 400 world universities, 19 are Australian – equal fourth with Canada, behind USA, UK and Germany; per population (can’t do a score weighting, THES doesn’t score 201-400) behind New Zealand, Eire, Sweden, Switz, Denmark, and HK, but just ahead of Norway, Netherlands, and the UK, solidly ahead of Canada and the USA.
    If you want 8 out of the top 10, USA; if you want a top-400 (passable) uni for every 1,235,170 people, Australia.
    That said, an all caps complaint about THE WAY THE COMMENTS HERE DON’T START AT THE BEGINNING – at 1 rather than modulo 50. I often read halfway down the column before realising that everybody’s been thrashing things out for 100 posts already.

  34. Whether or not Oz universities would be better off if they were more “like” US universities, I’d be really wary of over-generalizing, because I’m not sure what “like” really means. The US tertiary system is huge and very diverse, especially given 50 states with differing worldviews, economies, and priorities. (Google: Nine Nations of North America for some useful insight: while Oz us hardly uniform, the regions of US are really different).

    Teaching mixes vary all over the map, and I still do guest lectures in classes, and the last few I’ve done (Penn State, Princeton, Stanford) were for classes taught by senior Professors, as in one a few months ago at Stanford for sophomores.
    I do think the MOOCs ate shaking things up.

    In US, most states there is usually one university started as an agricultural and engineering school, usually the home of the agricultural extension service for the state, and such ate often quite strong in life sciences and/or engineering. (For instance, in CA, UC Davis does that, famed for its wine research and education.)

    Anyway, for US comparisons, I might be tempted to narrow the scope from the whole US.
    CA might be closer in population, it does have an extensive public tertiary architecture (University of CA (undergrad-grad-research), California State schools (primarily undergrad), 2-year junior colleges), plus mix of private schools. But CA has enough oddities that one must be careful.

    When visiting Oz every year in the 1990s, at universities I was repeatedly asked in effect “how do we duplicate Silicon Valley”, meaning at least, how could they get the effect of Stanford, et Alvin generating a cluster of high-tech businesses related to the schools.
    (That of course is a different question than where a school gets on world rankings, especially on whole-school ranks.). My usual advice was to look for strength on a few departments and build on that to create narrow centers of excellence rather than trying to do too much. There is a tricky balancing act for government-influenced collections of schools, as creating centers if excellence contends with spreading the wealth around. I am pretty sure that in many disciplines, there is some minimal critical mass for impact, and it is all too easy to fall below that.

    Finally, as implied by my Singapore example, successful societies not only need to create a few excellent institutions, they need to do a good job for a much larger fraction of the population. People worldwide know Stanford, but likely not San Jose State or Foothill College, but lots of people come through those and do just fine.

  35. Taking it another way, 44.2% of Australia’s universities are in the top 400, 30.2% of the UK’s (actually, after trimming off some single-faculty minnows that’s 34.5%), and 0.39% of the USA’s.

  36. @faust
    I don’t think we could could have a prolonged row at dinner even after the third bottle (each) but I don’t actually have clear ideas about stratifications by IQ: solving the Kashmir problem would be easier than prescribing for Australia’s tertiary education or just universities after taking proper account of 1. What every citizen needs to know. No, that’s for schools so start again; 1. The very even distribution of abilities and relevant attributes generally; 2. the country’s future economic needs, assesses with all due modesty about predictions; 3.scarcities, particularly of talented teschers willing to teach and especially to teach those who really need teaching; etc.

    Your point about IQs touches on valid points but isn’t focused and precise enough to be useful. Sure there are people with comparatively low IQs (or reasonably presumed to be so) who are exceptionally successful in important competitive positions – some PMs and Premiers come to mind – and some of their high IQ school contemporaries end up looking like holy fools or drunken clowns. But the fact is that, strictly on average, higher IQ on modern well designed roughly culture fair tests correlates well with success in just about everything where the brain’s cognitive activity matters right down to the performance in certain key positions in American football. Moreover all supposedly important tests of mental, including emotional abilities correlate highly with IQ’s g. And there is the practical discovery by the American army when it gave up conscription that they had better not take recruits with IQs under 90 because at 80 the rate of loss – of almost everything – from accidents was insupportably expensive.

    True, there is evidence supporting your remarks in Chinese-Americans tending to have better SAT scores (themselves not a bad surrogate for an IQ test) than non-Asian students with similar IQ scores. (Maybe the Chinese Tiger mother has taken kver from the Jewish mother of 50+ years ago – though Jewish IQs have been demonstrably higher than those of any other large ethnic group).

    You say that clever but lazy students have trouble getting in to the top institutions. I have no doubt that their later performance, if lazy, may be poor, but they are unlikely to suffer much in America because the SAT is so close to an IQ test. Not so ?

    Would you agree that the elements of cognitive ability that IQ tests measure are important in varying degrees in heavily g-loaded activities? Of course: no well liquored belligerence could make us fight over that. So…
    Would you agree that there are thresholds for different high g activities? E.g could you imagine a professor of physics with an IQ under 125? A Vice-Chancellor of any but Hicksville Uni under 135? If one competing bank’s senior execs were known to have average IQs of 130 (nothing else being known about them) and the other’s 120 wouldn’t you prefer to invest in the former cet. par.? And wouldn’t you have trouble recruiting teachers who could maintain the minimum needed respect of the 2-3 per cent of >130 IQ students who will lagely create the future if you spread clever teachers evenly amingst students of all abilities?

    I repeat for those who didn’t notice or have forgotten that I only started off challenging JQ’s consistency. I have few macro solutions to the world’s problems but a perhaps excessive irritation and reaction to bad arguments and unclear thinking at least from those who should do better. I pay JQ’s bloggers the compliment of being no less capable than my family and make no apology forva comparable intolerance in response to them.

    BTW I like your nom de guerre. As I trust this life is good to you I hope you will be with us for many years.

  37. @ChrisB
    And what that means (or ratings of the top 50 or 100 by more thsne publisher of ratings) is open to discussion as you know doubt would say yourself.

    I am reminded of a survey that reported equal or greater material success by those offered places by the Ivies and their peer institutions but went to the local state college instead than by those who accepted the prestigious places. (They probably didn’t marry mates as rich as they might have though – at least not first time round).

  38. @yuri @ faust
    Oops! for “even distribution” read “uneven d….” Obvious but I apolgise for impeding easy reading.

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