The financialisation of higher education

by reestheskin on 23/03/2018

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Nice article in the FT. It is about the increasing use of capital markets by UK universities, and the deal by Portsmouth is highlighted. It joins some dots:

Because the Portsmouth deal is private, so are a lot of the details about it – the borrowing cost, the contractual stipulations. But one aspect in the public domain is the emphasis placed on university rankings in the deal’s press release. ]Text below] From that release:

According to The Economist’s own ranking of UK universities, the University does more to boost its graduates’ earnings that any other university in the UK. The University was ranked 37th in the 2018 Guardian University Guide (having risen for the third successive year from 43rd in last year’s guide and 49th in 2016) and for the third consecutive year, it ranked in the top 100 young universities in the world, in the Times Higher Education ranking of universities which are less than 50 years old.

Even if it is not an explicit part of a lender’s investment process, university rankings are a critical part of the emerging financial infrastructure for universities. They mediate both the demand of student-consumers (in line with the guidance of their parents and schools) and the overall marketing process of debt issuance (lenders, we assume, will be reassured by high or rising rankings).

On keeping a straight face

by reestheskin on 22/03/2018

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“It’s hard to keep a straight face and conduct professional conversations about finite element modelling or soil strength profiles when I’m in a site office surrounded by pictures of naked women.”

From a review of: Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures, Roma Agrawal Bloomsbury, 2018. 308 pp.

Reviewed in Science

Market Failure

by reestheskin on 21/03/2018

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So, where it this from?

At the peak of the crisis, the hospital had the equivalent of eight full-time pharmacy employees battling the shortage. Technicians worked through the night to mix saline by hand, while nurses injected the solution of salt in water into patients using syringes — a task normally done by the metal stands and plastic bags used for intravenous drips. “Sometimes we’ve had over 20 nurses at a time doing that,” ..

Yes, in the US, at the Cleveland Clinic. FT

Backward thinking

by reestheskin on 20/03/2018

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It is a truism that you never understand anything unless you can understand it more than one way. I like this one:

When he and his colleagues spun ClearMotion out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008, their intention was to use bumps in the road to generate electricity. They had developed a device designed to be attached to the side of a standard shock absorber. As the suspension moved up and down, hydraulic fluid from the absorber would be forced through their device, turning a rotor that generated electricity. But, just as a generator and an electric motor are essentially the same, except that they run in opposite directions, so ClearMotion’s engineers realised that running their bump-powered generator backwards would turn it into an ideal form of suspension. And that seemed a much better line of business. They therefore designed a version in which the rotor is electrically powered and pumps hydraulic fluid rapidly into and out of the shock absorber. The effect is to level out a rough road by pushing the wheels down into dips and pulling them up over bumps.


Ebbinghaus redux

by reestheskin on 19/03/2018

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Ebbinghaus link

The neoteny of misery

by reestheskin on 16/03/2018

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Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” A 2013 report by the Yale College Council found that more than half of undergraduates sought mental health care from the university during their time there.

Yale’s Most Popular Class Ever: Happiness – The New York Times

Higher Ed 101:That was then, and this is now.

by reestheskin on 15/03/2018

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“The relationship of the individual student to their university is an unusual one. In Western higher education, for a long period, the student was generally viewed by the university authorities and its academic staff as some kind of apprentice to the academic discipline: there to learn, certainly, but not quite in the way a high-school student would learn; rather, to play a supporting role in the knowledge production process and thereby to absorb an understanding of the discipline concerned. Several important features of traditional university life followed from this conception. One was that students were considered to be members of the university, albeit junior members, with certain rights and responsibilities. The role was neither that of an employee nor that of someone attending merely to master a new skill, as they might be at a technical college in further rather than higher education. Another important feature was that teaching methods, as a school teacher would understand them, were considered less necessary for a university academic to grasp than a deep knowledge of the discipline and a research orientation towards it—with a desire to extend knowledge in that area. Students would, it was tacitly assumed, learn by exposure to this atmosphere of scholarship and research at least as much as by formal, structured teaching. It therefore also followed that students were expected to take a great deal of personal responsibility for their learning, with teaching contact hours (lectures, seminars, tutorials) comprising a small proportion of their time—though students in science and technology subjects usually needed to spend a good deal of time in the laboratory. (Medicine was always different, as students spent a large part of their time in hospitals and usually formed a distinctive community where professional norms typically took precedence over academic ones.)”

“Universities and Colleges: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)” by David Palfreyman, Paul Temple

When Kissinger got the Nobel peace prize irony……

by reestheskin on 14/03/2018

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On the: Office for students (OfS).

We learned last week that not only was DfE’s compliance with the Commissioner’s requests woeful, but the interference by special advisors in Number 10 led to the effective no-platforming of candidates with any ties to the National Union of Students. It can now safely be said that we’re in a post-irony world. The minister also broke the rules about public appointments when choosing to appoint Ruth Carlson to the student experience board position, despite her not having been interviewed for the role and for not consulting on the appointment.

And if you thought that the way in which the whole episode was handled was as if Jo Johnson was writing his own episode of The Thick of It, we haven’t even got to the fact that Toby Young’s appointment was made without even a cursory glance at his Twitter history. By contrast, the original student experience role candidates had extensive checking by the “No 10 Googlers”, to see whether they had ever expressed any negativity about the Prevent duty, or dared to whisper the word “union”. The OfS board appointments were a shambles of the omni variety.

WONKE: Monday Morning HE Briefing – 5th March, 2018 and see here (OfS board appointments and the death of irony).

So, Orwell lives, and business as usual. Some are indeed more equal than others.

Value to whom?

by reestheskin on 13/03/2018

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From the Monday Note

What we need is MBA-like programs for journalism. (They will have to be less expensive than a year at Stanford Graduate School of Business, which can shoot up to $120,000. Last year, one of my classmates, a bright Indian woman, said to me, ‘I’m depressed for the whole week when I have to send my quarterly $40,000 check’; her Big Five consulting firm was too cheap and too short-sighted to pony up the cost, she had to resign and take a loan.

Book review on sun, skin and physics

by reestheskin on 12/03/2018

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The following is an excerpt from a review in press with Acta. You can see the full article with DOI 10.2340/00015555-2916 here


From the solar constant to thong bikinis and all stops in between. 

A review of: “Sun Protection: A risk management approach.” Brian Diffey. IOP Publishing, Bristol, UK. ISBN 978-0-7503-1377-3 (ebook) ISBN 978-0-7503-1378-0 (print) ISBN 978-0-7503-1379-7 (mobi)

Leo Szilard was one of half a dozen or so physical scientists who, having attended the same Budapest gymnasium, revolutionised twentieth century physics. In 1934, whilst working in London, he realised that if one neutron hit an atom which then released two further neutrons, a chain reaction might ensue. Fearing of the consequences, he tried to keep the discovery secret by assigning the patent to the British Admiralty. In 1939, he authored the letter, that Einstein signed, warning the then US President of the coming impact of nuclear weapons.

After the war, in revulsion at the uses to which his physics had been applied, he swapped physics for biology. There was a drawback, however. Szilard liked to think in a hot bath, and he liked to think a lot. Once his interests had turned to biology he remarked that he could no longer enjoy a long uninterrupted bath — he was forever having to leave his bath, to check some factual detail (before returning to think some more). Biology seemed to lack the deep simplifying foundations of the Queen of Sciences.

Just one point in your life?

by reestheskin on 09/03/2018

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Training gets a bad rap for a reason – it’s all a bit, well, dull and inflexible. At one point in my life I point blank refused to be in a room with round tables, a flipchart, coloured pens and a bowl of mints for inspiration.

Donald Clark Link. And please no breakout sessions.

Money talk

by reestheskin on 08/03/2018

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Already UK Biobank has transformed our understanding of health and disease, improving diagnosis and care for those with cancer and rare diseases. But if every participant has their genome sequenced, the prospects for understanding and treating disease, including obesity and mental health disorders, will be extraordinary. We do not know what we will find, but we can be confident it will transform our understanding of what it is to be healthy and what it is to be sick.

Dr Jim Smith is a developmental biologist and the director of science at Wellcome, the science and health foundation.  Link


by reestheskin on 07/03/2018

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But all of that media can’t really replace the socializing, networking, and simply fun that happened as part of (or sometimes despite) the conference formula.

I don’t know how to fix conferences, but the first place I’d start on that whiteboard is by getting rid of all of the talks, then trying to find different ways to bring people together — and far more of them than before.

Marco Arment

I no longer go to many conferences, and that is a good thing. But fixing them is a problem, not least because many academic conferences are businesses that collect money that supports other activities. This is not always bad, but is often not good. ‘Getting rid of the talks’ is of course attractive. Leo Szilard once suggested that you should stand up, briefly report your conclusions, then sit down. Only if the audience were sceptical of your results would you have to speak for longer. As for size, there is no single right size. However the best conferences I have every attended were all small, with less than 40 people. But I wouldn’t t have got to these small ones, unless I had gone to the big ones.

John Perry Barlow RIP, lyricist for the Grateful Dead

by reestheskin on 06/03/2018

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He saw what other people had not yet seen, that this was a new space—one to which he quickly applied an existing term, cyberspace, and his own metaphor, the electronic frontier.

From the Economist’s obituary (the best writing in this world is about the dead..). He of the wonderful:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather…I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.

Then the thug with hoodie took over and the garden was enclosed.

It was Stewart Brand who made clear to me the link between the creation of the modern (computer — for that is what it is) age, and all that was good about the 1960s:

I think that hackers — dedicated, innovative, irreverent computer programmers — other most interesting and effective body of intellectuals since the framers of the US Constitution….. No other group that I know of has set out to liberate a technology and succeeded. They not only did so against the active disinterest of corporate America, their success forced corporate America to adopt their style in the end. The quietest of all the ‘60s subcultures has emerged as the most innovative and powerful. 

[Stewart Brand’s description nails it (previous link of mine)]

From Vanneavar Bush’s Endless Frontier to the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

And in memory here is the version of Dark Star (“The Finest Rock Improvisation Ever Recorded” – Robert Christgau). Listen to Lesh’s bass signalling the coming together at 1’15” onwards



Indeed, it is true.

by reestheskin on 06/03/2018

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“While in some nations the professor is still a figure to be respected if not revered, the question does arise in the US and UK of whether the faculty brought upon themselves their decline of status. Were they too readily involved in political protest in the 1960s, many joining their (back then not much younger) students at the barricades? Were they rumbled for operating a ‘ProfScam’ by being poor teachers, lazy researchers, waffly writers of trendy jargon-filled trivia that was passed off as academic output; squabbling among their various sub-tribes about obscure issues and neglecting their students? Or did they just suffer in the general passing of a deferential age and its being replaced by a cynicism about professionals of all kinds and a reaction to one-time deference within explicit social hierarchies? Probably for all these reasons the professors as a whole have lost status and in many cases, comparatively, pay and perks—but some can still carve out enviable lifestyles in comfortable environments, enjoying their very special benefits of academic tenure and academic freedom (as well as in some countries still enjoying high social status).”

Universities and Colleges: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)” by David Palfreyman, Paul Temple

How long does it take to train a…..

by reestheskin on 05/03/2018

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“The Master of Arts (MA) took another four years and earned the Master the right to teach at any other university in Christian Europe (ius ubique docendi)—today’s Master’s is usually a one-or two-year degree. Then, for some students, another six to ten years of study culminated in a Doctorate in law, medicine, or theology (the equivalent of today’s PhD): the first two, even back in the Middle Ages, being nicknamed ‘the lucrative sciences’; the last, being rather less well-rewarded in this world, was at least styled ‘the queen of sciences’.”

from “Universities and Colleges: A Very Short Introduction” (Very Short Introductions)” by David Palfreyman, Paul Temple

Integumentary matters

by reestheskin on 28/02/2018

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Well, what would you expect of a fellow ectodermist. The story in the FT is about Nick Park refusing to sell Wallace and Gromit.

Yes, I say. “And teeth”, I add. Those Beano characters, like so many Park characters (except of course the mouthless Gromit), had such maniacal teeth. That’s so British, isn’t it? Look what Hollywood did when it wanted to create a funny British secret agent. Austin Powers. Gave him terrible teeth.

I used to say similar things about the prevalence of acne amongst medical students in different countries. But as Miroslav Holub wrote, in a poem that we had to find a dentist to read, at my wedding:

Teeth are rather ridiculous remains of the outside inside

The pedagogy of liars

by reestheskin on 27/02/2018

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But teaching bright young adults also teaches one a lot about the law – and quite a lot about how to spot liars.

Lady Hale: ‘Studying law? Make sure you have the stomach for it’ | Law | The Guardian

That spare 50K or more

by reestheskin on 26/02/2018

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“If parents have the discretionary income, they consider business school one of the endless costs of raising children,” she says


I have no idea how I do what I do (spoke the dermatologist)

by reestheskin on 21/02/2018

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This article (‘Humans may not always grasp why AIs act’) in the Economist gets to the right answer, but by way of a silly example involving brain scanning. The issue is that people are alarmed that that it may not be possible to understand how AI might come to a certain decision. The article rightly points out that we have the same problem with humans. This issue looms large in medicine where many clinicians believe they can always explain to students how they come to the correct answer. The following is one of my favourite Geoff Norman quotes:

Furthermore, diagnostic success may be a result of processes that can never be described by the clinician. If the right diagnosis arises from pattern recognition, clinicians are unlikely to be able to tell you why they thought the patient had gout, any more than we can say how we recognize that the person on the street corner is our son. Bowen claims that “strong diagnosticians can generally readily expand on their thinking”; I believe, instead, that strong diagnosticians can tell a credible story about how they might have been thinking, but no one, themselves included, can really be sure that it is an accurate depiction.

We are Strangers to Ourselves, as Timothy Wilson put it.

Flat out on the apprenticeships

by reestheskin on 20/02/2018

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The article is about Germany, but I just wonder how much the rite of passage of moving out of the family home is relevant.

Second, apprentices in less prestigious positions are paid very poorly, she said. A trainee hairdresser might receive just €350-€400 (£311-£356) a month, not enough to allow them to move out of their parents’ house, Professor Solga explained, and sectors with shortages such as hotel work or food processing often involve shift and evening work. “For young people, they are not the best working conditions,” she said. THE

“Debt douses every flame – it’s a great retardant.”

by reestheskin on 19/02/2018

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The result, he says, is not only a meek student population but also “the biggest Ponzi scheme in British history” – a comparison famously made by Theresa May’s former adviser Nick Timothy.

“The great thing about a Ponzi scheme”, Professor Sutherland continued, “is that you can keep expanding it.”

(All the way to jail, some might say).

John Sutherland (‘The war on the old’ and now the ‘War on the young’, quoted in the THE. Not so much kindling a flame, nor even filling the vessel, then.

Human matters

by reestheskin on 15/02/2018

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“People worry that computers will get too smart and take over the world, but the real problem is that they’re too stupid and they’ve already taken over the world.”

Pedro Domingos, The Master Algorithm1, (2015)

via John Naughton

Facebook has a “Big Tobacco problem”.

by reestheskin on 14/02/2018

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Frederik Filloux in the ever readable Monday note. And just as big T went for the developing world, so with FB

Mark Zuckerberg talking: “ There was this Deloitte study that came out the other day, that said if you could connect everyone in emerging markets, you could create more than 100 million jobs and bring a lot of people out of poverty.”

The Deloitte study, which did indeed say this, was commissioned by Facebook, based on data provided by Facebook, and was about Facebook.


by reestheskin on 13/02/2018

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I had just wanted one, but now….

MAD and Mutually assured instruction

by reestheskin on 12/02/2018

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Young people, both rich and poor, are ill-served by the arms race in academic qualifications, in which each must study longer because that is what all the rest are doing. It is time to disarm.

I guess we need a version of CND fit for out time. Economist.


by reestheskin on 08/02/2018

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I love statistics, but I am just not very good at it, and find much of it extremely counter intuitive (which is why it is ‘fun’). The Monty Hall problem floored me, but then Paul Erdos got it wrong too (I am told), so I am in good — and numerate — company. During my intercalated degree in addition to a research methods tutorials (class size, n=2), we had one three hour stats practical each week (class size, n=10). We each used a Texas calculator, and working out a SD demanded concentration. Never mind, that during the rest of the week we were learning how to use FORTRAN and SPSS on a mainframe, ‘slowing’ down the process was useful.

Medicine has big problems with statistics although it is often not so much to do with ‘mathematical’ statistics but evidence in a broader sense. IMHO the biggest abusers are the epidemiologists and the EBM merchants with their clickbait NNT and the like. But I do think this whole field deserves much greater attention in undergraduate education, and cannot help but feel that you need much more small group teaching over a considerable period of time. Otherwise, it just degenerates into ‘What is this test for?’ exam fodder style of learning.

The problems we have within both medicine and medical research have been talked about for a long while. Perhaps things are improving, but it is only more recently that this topic has been acknowledged as a problem amongst practising scientists (rather than medics). This topic certainly resurfaces with increased frequency, and there have been letters on it in Nature recently. I like this one:

Too many practitioners who discuss the misuse of statistics in science propose technical remedies to a problem that is essentially social, cultural and ethical (see J. Leek et al. Nature 551, 557–559; 2017). In our view, technical fixes are doomed. As Steven Goodman writes in the article, there is nothing technically wrong with P values. But even when they are correct and appropriate, they can be misunderstood, misrepresented and misused — often in the haste to serve publication and career. P values should instead serve as a check on the quality of evidence.

I think you could argue with the final sentence of this (selected) quote, but they are right about the big picture: narrow technical solutions are not the problem here. Instead, we are looking at a predictable outcome of the corruption of what being a scientist means.

Not so much in the tea leaves, but in the latte

by reestheskin on 07/02/2018

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In the US, “belief in work is crumbling among people in their 20s and 30s”, says Benjamin Hunnicutt, a leading historian of work. “They are not looking to their job for satisfaction or social advancement.” (You can sense this every time a graduate with a faraway look makes you a latte.)

Post-work: the radical idea of a world without jobs | News | The Guardian

When lectures work

by reestheskin on 06/02/2018

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“What were your most memorable moments at university?”


“There was a man called Walter Ullmann who taught medieval critical philosophy at 10am – and there was standing room only. I went every week, regardless of how wasted I’d got the night before, because he was brilliant.” THE

Reminds me of people queueing to get into to listen to Isaiah Berlin. Some merit as a metric: standing room only. (Until H&S arrive)

PS. And,  for another example, see this from a recent book review of a biography of Enrico Fermi (The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age. By David Schwartz).

[the author]..He interviewed many of Fermi’s students and colleagues, shedding light also on Fermi the educator (his lectures were so renowned that even notes taken by his assistants were a bestseller).

TEF that!

Osborning and imaging specialties

by reestheskin on 05/02/2018

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The Osborne effect is described in Wikipedia as follows:

The Osborne effect is a term referring to the unintended consequences of a company announcing a future product, unaware of the risks involved or when the timing is misjudged, which ends up having a negative impact on the sales of the current product. This is often the case when a product is announced too long before its actual availability. This has the immediate effect of customers canceling or deferring orders for the current product, knowing that it will soon be obsolete, and any unexpected delays often means the new product comes to be perceived as vaporware, damaging the company’s credibility and profitability.

AI and associated technologies will have major effects in some areas of medicine. Think skin cancer diagnosis, for certain;  or this weekend story in the FT on eye disease; and radiology and pathology. This then begs the question, whether these skills are so central to expertise within a clinical domain, that students should think hard about these areas as a career. Of course, diagnosis of skin lesions is not all a clinical expert in this domain does. Ditto, ophthalmologists do more than look at retinas. Automated ECG readers have not put cardiologists out of work, after all. And many technical advances increase — not reduce — workloads.

But at some stage, people might want to start wondering if some areas of medicine are (not) going to be secure as long term careers. The Osborne metaphor should be a warning about how messy all this could be. Hype,  has costs.