by MERLIN CROSSLEY
One of the most memorable essays I ever read was J.B.S. Haldane’s piece ‘On being the right size’,. published in 1926. It basically explained to me that scaling up or down was not without its complications. The line I remember is:
“You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom it gets a slight shock and walks away, provided that the ground is fairly soft. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.”
I wish he had written another piece, not on size, but on rarity, about occurring at the right frequency, or about the advantages and disadvantages of being unique or one of a crowd.
I think a lot about this in terms of my own discipline, molecular biology, but also in terms of education, and of course, I see the effects of rarity everywhere in literature, economics, and in biology.
I think of The Little Prince’s flower, which he thought was unique but turned out to be just an ordinary rose. I think of rare metals and their extraordinary value. I think of the advantages afforded to prey animals from fish, to birds, to antelope, in being parts of large assemblies. And I think that if I were a film producer how much easier it would be to make Rocky V or The Godfather III or Star Wars 6 and take modest profits, rather than to go it alone, and attempt to begin a new genre.
In molecular biology the ease with which new techniques can be applied to different life forms – since all terrestrial lifeforms have DNA – means that again and again similar experiments can productively be done on every different species or indeed every different cell type in the human body. The return on investment may be small but the risk is low. There is safety in crowds.
I think about how risky and rare truly new research is. It is a striking fact that perhaps the most important molecular biology done this century – the work on CRISPR gene editing – had its roots not in the big research centres: San Francisco, Boston, Washington, Oxbridge, London, but rather in Alicante, Spain and Vilnius, Lithuania, where fundamental and relatively low cost bacteriology was being done and new information, outside the mainstream topics of health research, was uncovered.
Rare things have enormous, disproportionate value, but there are risks in standing out from the crowd. It is a constant balance and I think good researchers tend to carefully adjust their portfolio of experiments to include some Rocky V experiments and other riskier experiments that are totally unprecedented forays into the unknown.
The effect of rarity in educational attainment is also interesting. There is a statue in London of William Forster who in 1870 – just 150 years ago – introduced the Elementary Education act thus ensuring that all students from five to 12 in England went to what we call primary school. Later it became expected that students would attend secondary school. When I went to university it was only expected that around 10 per cent of school leavers would progress to tertiary education, and even fewer would go on to do doctorates.
How rare, special and privileging it was to be a graduate. It would have been even more so in the days of Brideshead Revisited.
But times have changed. It now appears that perhaps 50 per cent of school leavers go straight to university in Sydney, and perhaps another 25 per cent to a form of vocational education.
These numbers change the game. Not only for students but for institutions.
There is a view that universities should expand to take more domestic students but the available catchment is limited. Shrewd commentators on the “demand driven system” were already observing that demand was beginning to plateau even before the government imposed caps on Commonwealth Supported Places.
Importantly, the so-called “mature age” student sector of non-school leavers going back to begin undergraduate degrees, is also going to gradually shrink as more and more students go directly to university, and fewer and fewer students miss out after finishing school. There will, of course, always be some people who take other paths and come to university late, but the “non-school” leaver segment will get smaller, not larger, over time. There will be some “re-training” but it may primarily involve short courses and the recent data is not showing any sustained expansion, despite predictions to the contrary.
At present, relatively few people go on to full masters degrees, so they remain rare additions, demonstrating capability, commitment or sadly sometimes primarily reflecting wealth and the capacity to take advantage of extra study. I can see masters degrees, including online offerings, growing further and worry they may become a battle ground for social equity and educational advantage.
Accumulating rare degrees from top universities can, up to a point, give students a competitive advantage. Some of the leading providers will be well aware that restricting how many students they take not only ensures they can look after all their students, but also serves to boost the prestige of the degree through its rarity. One thus sees some universities constraining undergraduate numbers, while expanding fee paying short courses, summer schools, and even masters programs. Harvard, for instance, is highly selective when it comes to undergraduates but has a very wide range of less formal programs that are readily available. In the publishing industry too, as I have discussed previously, Nature is extremely selective and prestigious, but (Nature) Scientific Reports leverage the brand and provide additional opportunities.
But the most important lesson is not to be distracted by rarity. The Little Prince’s love for his flower and later for the tame fox, has nothing to do with whether these things are rare or common, it is a personal thing and the relationships are unique to him. Similarly, though the prestige of education distracts us, that is not its point. Again, at its best, education is something personal, involving exploration, building capability and capacity, and indeed the enjoyment of growth at an individual level is what makes the experience special. The true value of education often is, in part, a personal one.
So let us not be distracted if someone, tiring of the uniformity of primary, secondary, tertiary, masters and doctoral education, invents a special super doctorate to provide something rare. Let us instead see through this ruse, and increasingly we will succeed as we gradually become wiser and benefit from our early commitments to – lifelong learning.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic