A yurt for preference

Flinders University reports visiting US archaeologist Julia Clark, “has spent the past decade in the vast frozen plains of Mongolia. And there’s no place she’d rather be.” Bedford Park does that to some people.

More in the Mail

In Features this morning, David Myton talks to 2018 Australian of the Year and world-leading physicist Michelle Simmons about the challenges of building a quantum computer … and why she is proud to call Australia home

Homes among the gum trees

Eucalypts Australia has a social media awareness campaign celebrating gum trees on campuses around the country – there is a lovely Instagram pic of Monash Clayton, here. Shame they did not start this a year back, when Macquarie U had 120 lemon scented gums around its courtyard. They were chopped down over the summer because the way they shed limbs was deemed a safety hazard (CMM February 20).

Sydney unis combine on quantum computing bid

Sydney is being positioned as a global force in quantum computing research and development, with four universities pitching a Sydney Quantum Academy. The University of Sydney led scheme includes UNSW, Macquarie U and UTS and is developing a plan “to help Sydney cement its place as a global centre of excellence for quantum computing … and develop the next generation of quantum engineers,” UniSyd DVC R Duncan Ivison says.

Australian of the year Michelle Simmons (interviewed in this morning’s CMM) leads a major research project into QC at USW while the University of Sydney with partner Microsoft is investing $150m to build the world’s first large-scale quantum computer.

The state government is funding the partners to bring it a proposal by August.


Export education: stronger for longer

Pessimists point to the possibility of a downturn in Chinese demand for Australian universities (CMM, Monday and yesterday), optimists point to the trend-line. Which is way up on last year. Certainly, exports could be stronger for longer than looked likely in the 2011-13 dip.

There were 624 000 international students in Australia in 2017, 13 per cent more than in ’16. And way, way up on 2014, when there were 452 000. The growth is set to roll on, with 2017 commencements up 12 per cent on ’16. This compares to average annual commencements of 3.8 per cent over the preceding ten years.

There was growth in all main markets, including China which continues by far the single largest source of sales, growing 54 per cent between ’14 and ’16. In 2014 the 119 000 students from China accounted for 26 per cent of the total rising to 184 000 (29 per cent) last year.

Demand from second-place India was also robust, up by 48 per cent, to 68 000 in 2016. Nepal was also up, 113 per cent to 28 000 and the number of Brazilian students sambaed strongly, up 62 per cent to 24 000.

The higher education (up 15 per cent between 2016 and 2017) and VET systems (up 15 per cent) drove the industry’s growth, which the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates generates $30.9bn for the economy.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham points to the BOoS number and says the government is enhancing the industry by raising the bar for providers in student welfaresupport services and the performance of international agents.

Bit of step to get a beer

“There’s a gas cloud near the constellation of Aquila that holds enough alcohol to make 400 trillion trillion pints of beer. If you want CSIRO-made gluten free beer however, you can stay here on Earth,” CSIRO yesterday. For those who don’t it will be a long time between drinks.

ANU debates the price of western civilisation

ANU pitched its proposed western civilisation study centre to the uni community yesterday, with arts and social science dean Rae Frances addressing a community meeting. Ramsay Foundation chair John Howard has nominated ANU to teach a degree in wester civ and it is the only preferred provider to date. All up the foundation is said to have $30m to spend with one, or more, university partners.

The meeting was calm and considered with supporters of the idea speaking up but overall the questioning was on the critical end of quizzical, with people asking just what a western civ degree would teach, why it is needed and where it would fit in the ANU programme.

Professor Frances did well with the case she had but with the university aiming to have the programme set, 12 staff hired and scholarships awarded for the 2019 academic year she will not have a lot of time for the continuing consultations people at the meeting wanted. ANU VC Brian Schmidt is expected to put the university’s terms to the Ramsay Foundation in coming weeks.

The productivity research challenge: it’s not what you know, it’s who you tell about it

Generating a productivity return from innovation investment is not always about more money – it can be a matter of who you know and what you know about what they know.

When he is not working on ways block chains will reduce regulatory impositions RMIT economist Jason Potts is explaining why innovation can be a productivity placebo. In a new paper Professor Potts, with Spanish colleagues Isabel Almudi, Francisco Fatas-Villafranca, Carlos Fernandez and Francisco Vazquez, considers why innovation does not necessarily generate productivity. Potts and colleagues, including Stuart Thomas from RMIT, also addressed this last year in a study of Australian windsurfing in the ‘80s, which found the technology innovated until it exceeded consumers’ capacity.

The new paper models this problem, of “unbalanced inter-sectoral knowledge,” where new technologies are not picked up because the market is invested in existing methods to find; “it’s not necessarily best to have the smart people and innovative capabilities all working upstream. This will tend to cause overshooting, which will then backpropagate to collapse the upstream sector.”

Ways to help industry sectors talk to each other sounds like a lot of work for policy makers, but it would make change from just spraying cash through programmes like the Research and Development Tax Incentive. In essence, there is a role for innovation policy to align innovation and absorptive capacity across different sectors of the economy.

This sounds like bad news for the innovation lobby that says Australia cannot compete without tax breaks for innovators – but there is not much point in transformative technologies if the workforce can’t use them. On the other hand, it is great for the training sector, be it in higher education or VET. Whizbang technology is not much use without people to build the products and apply the services innovators invent.