Disunity in binarity

In the Netherlands, the discussion about the sustainability of a binary system has again come up. The best examples of countries that have abolished their binary systems are probably the UK and Australia. Maybe the Dutch politicians should take a look at the developments in Australia.

Minister Nelson’s  recent push for graduate school universities and the push for students to complete a general degree before entering elite graduate schools at the nation’s sandstone universities seems to be a return to a binary system. Maybe not of polytechnics and universities in this case, but a binary system of ‘teaching only’ and ‘research intensive’ universities. What is the difference?

Languages of the Internet

Yesterday, UNESCO published a report on languages and the Internet (Click here for a PDF version for the whole report). The report is primarily on measurement and methodology, but also shows some results of these measurements. Here are some of my quick observations:

  • English language speakers are still the largest language group on the internet with around 300 million users. The English language domination however is far less than in 2001, mainly due to the growth of Chinese and Japanese speaking/writing internet users (see graph).

  • While in 1998, web pages were still dominantly in English, also this has decreased. In 1998, 75% of all web pages were in English, in 2003 this was around 45%. The ‘other’ in the graph must be mainly Chinese.

A simple search for “internet” (for specific languages) gives the following results:

2,160,000,000      English pages for “internet”
61,300,000           French pages for “internet”
53,900,000           German pages for “internet”
36,500,000           Spanish pages for “internet”
14,400,000           Dutch pages for “internet”
11,700,000           Portuguese pages for “internet”

One ERC…or 25?

Now that I have returned from my visit last month to CHEPS in the Netherlands and the University of Aveiro in Portugal, I’ll try to post more regularly again. That said…let’s start with a short item in last weeks Economist:

“Historically, the European Union has not bothered with funding much basic scientific research. Such activities have mainly remained the preserve of national governments, not least because giving scientists free rein can lead to discoveries that not only make money but ultimately enhance military might. That attitude is now changing. The European Commission proposes to establish a European Research Council (ERC) that would spend a maximum of euro12 billion ($14 billion) over seven years on “blue skies” research. While the plans are being generally welcomed by Europe’s member states, their details are problematic.”

In many respects, I’m a supporter of the creation of a European Research Council. Expanding the opportunities for researchers to apply for research funding will create a healthy form of competition, especially for those in the smaller countries of the EU. Whether I am a believer of this European version of the NSF (the US National Science Foundation)? …I’m not so sure. Europe is simply not a federation of states like the US. It is a grouping of sovereign nation states with some common goals and a lot of different peculiarities. And this is exactly what should not be taken into account when deciding upon the way in which the ERC will be legally organised. Basically the choice is between an independent organisation that allocates funding on the basis of merit and an organisation that allocates funding on the basis of national quota. It should be like the former option, but it will probably be more like the latter… This time I agree with the Economist:

“If both are genuine in their support for the ERC and Europe’s aim of becoming more competitive, then they must find a way of keeping the ERC free from political interference. Europe would benefit from a competition for its best researchers which rewards scientific excellence. A quasi-competition that recognises how many votes each member state is allotted would be pointless.”

Marx, marketing and the bottom line

Yes, some things might be wrong with some universities in some Western European higher education systems. In its 8th September 2005 special edition “The Brains Business”, the Economist devoted many pages to heavily critique ‘Europe’s‘ higher education system (as if there is no diversity within Europe). In many cases their critique was justified, in many cases it was imbalanced.

In their most recent edition the (Western) Europe bashing continues. In the article “from Marx to marketing” they report on the rise of (private) higher education in Eastern Europe:

“But in education, as in other industries, the new members of the European Union have the advantage of a past that leaves nowhere to go but up. Compared with their state-run counterparts in Western Europe, where academics, bureaucrats and students unite against change, universities in countries once yoked to Moscow are adapting fast to a new global market.”

Yes, many universities in Eastern Europe are showing remarkable progress. Most however are profoundly state-controlled as well. Many Eastern European governments have more control over their universities than for instance in the UK, Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries. The Economist has the habit of labelling Europe with one specific country that suits their story. Sometimes with Germany and Italy if they want to emphasise ‘Western Europe’s’ overcrowded class-rooms; sometimes with the UK, if they want to emphasise the high costs in Western Europe:

“a European-level undergraduate degree with combined annual tuition and living costs of some 5,000 Euros ($6,035). At a cheap western European outfit, such as Britain’s Luton University, the cost would be three times more.”

And in several Western European countries fees are much lower than in the UK and in many places they are even non-existent.

“Places with liberal regimes have seen the fastest rowth. In Poland, which deregulated universities in the 1990s, the number of tudents has risen from 500,000 to over 2m. Slovakia, with a more rigid system, has seen numbers double.”

The mushrooming of private institutions has not just led to quality institutions but also to rogue providers. The most highly regarded universities in most of the Central and Eastern European countries (for instant in the Czech Republic and in the Baltics) are public universities and have a lot of state interference.

“The region’s nimbler, more market-oriented colleges have been helped by the new practice of dividing education into chunks (bachelor’s and master’s degrees, for a start), with work sandwiched in between. An old-style five-year degree at a single campus would be costly, even at central European rates. Doing a short master’s in Prague, say, is more manageable.

This of course is simply part of the Bologna process which is taking place all over Europe and beyond.

Again, many promising developments are taking place in Central and Eastern European countries, but a bit more balanced and informed reporting on higher education issues in the Economist would be appreciated!