What we’ve got here …

As the Chilean ash cloud wafts through Australian airspace for a second time, we’re all thrown back into the science of prediction. What will it do next? Nightly news footage of passengers sitting in grumpy heaps in airports has drawn an unusual degree of national attention to Darwin. It turns out that we have one of the world’s nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centers right here in Australia, and they’ve been putting on their good shirts for the TV cameras night after night to tell us that they know where the plume is, and they’re keeping an eye on it.

Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres and their regions (image courtesy of Darwin VAAC)

Australia specialises in this kind of one-step-ahead-of-nature risk communication, because we do live in a difficult natural environment where prediction takes on biblical tones. Fire, drought, earthquake, flood, locusts, cane toads, mice (seriously) and now ash. We’re really clear on the importance of being able to see all these things coming.  In fact, we have a public culture of disaster planning, which is not to say that we’re nationally unique in planning for disaster, but we communicate it well.

But when it comes to planning the expansion of higher education, communication gets a bit murky. Continue reading


Bursting point

There’s a conversation building about whether we’re wise to look at higher education through the lens of the economy, given that nothing much looks good through the bottom of that dirty glass. Markets achieve extraordinary results using the levers and pulleys of scarcity, rivalry and desire, but this volatility doesn’t always help the big public institutions that deliver other kinds of social and cultural benefits, like education.

So we half-protect these familiar institutions of public life from the market in order to keep them in a steady state of development, managed as national resources by people who can plan responsibly for their futures with some certainty of employment and infrastructure. They’re also very expensive to dismantle and resurrect, so even if their value isn’t entirely economic, there’s an economic argument that it’s better to subsidise them through drought and flood, than to have to keep rebuilding them from scratch. Continue reading