OnPoint by Keith Ng

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OnPoint: Student Loans are Loans (Duh.)

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  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    But there is a balance in a society.
    All lawyers and no engineers results in ...

    ...Spin Doctorates?

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 4962 posts Report Reply

  • Islander, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    n fact medicine is a perfect example of the problem we often see, good students who like research but choose medicine because the pay is better.

    Unless, like one of the younger members of my whanau, they have a parent who is a GP!
    That person has an excellent intellect, and is determined upon a career as a medical researcher… “I am not going to be called at 4 !!*$@! a.m in the morning night after night!”

    (There are other, familial, reasons for the career path choice as well.)

    Big O, Mahitahi, Te Wahi … • Since Feb 2007 • 5643 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    In fact medicine is a perfect example of the problem we often see, good students who like research but choose medicine because the pay is better.

    I do wonder if half of the problem is because one's chances of making a significant breakthrough in science these days are pretty small. It seems to be a business that demands vast numbers of B students, chipping away at the Great Wall of China sized edifice that is modern science. Could be demoralizing all on its own to anyone cursed with brilliance.

    ETA Mind you at least half of being an A student seems to come down to being a total swot and not having to hold down 2 paid jobs at the same time, so maybe accusations of brilliance on their part are unfair.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8541 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    I had a thought a while back about NZ chasing expats for student loan payments.

    As I understand it, foreign courts will enforce debts and contracts, but they won't enable a country to impose arbitrary taxes on its former residents. (So if the UK decided it wanted to make me liable for income tax on my NZ income, the NZ courts wouldn't help them).

    I reckon it would be possible to argue in an overseas court that the student loan is actually a disguised tax - it's collected by IRD, payments are based on income and the terms are regularly changed by statute. If large numbers of overseas defaulters are getting chased for payment in full, it's quite possible they might club together and hire a lawyer to test this.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 4459 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to BenWilson,

    ETA Mind you at least half of being an A student seems to come down to being a total swot and not having to hold down 2 paid jobs at the same time, so maybe accusations of brilliance on their part are unfair.

    Yes and no. There are a few prerequisites for being considered "brilliant", including, but not limited to, those things you mention. (Also helpful: patience, lots of it; a real love of thinking; lack of mental/physical health problems; good networking/social skills; etc.)

    But my experience has been that there's a real, quantitative difference between people who have ideas in science and people who carry them out. It's not a binary distinction so much as a gradient; there are those who are great at expanding upon other people's initial idea, those who are great at perfecting methodology but not as worried about what it's used for, those who are just happy to do benchwork at all, whatever it is (though not many of them.)

    And the caveat is that a lot (though not all) of the people who are amazing idea-generators are not so good on follow-through; they need a team of B people to get stuff done. The scale of modern science requires a lot of people chipping away at the coalface, but chipping away isn't enough. The demoralising bit is that there are a lot more jobs chipping than supervising chipping, and that supervising chipping usually necessitates giving up the actual benchwork part, which is what most people became scientists to do, so it's a bit of a double-edged sword anyway.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen,

    What Lucy said!

    This is something that is always tricky to talk about because it treads on people's sensitivities. But nobody has a problem with the idea that Dan Carter is special, genuinely gifted. It doesn't matter how many hours a club rugby player practices they will never be able to do the things Dan Carter does.

    The same is true in science. I'm good at what I do, I'm a solid B to B+ and on a good day with a tail wind I can sometimes put together half an A+ idea. I'm fortunate to work with three others who are as good or slightly better than I am and we work very well together, so between us we can work an idea into A grade level. But it takes all of us working hard and being on form to make that happen.

    But I've had the joy of working with genuine A+ scientists and I know the difference between what they do without effort and what my team and I can do with our hard, sometimes slow, work.

    As Lucy said sometimes those gifted people are flawed. And really they often just don't have the time to execute all the ideas they have and they can also be wrong. So there is definitely a place for all the B grade folks like me to contribute.

    And despite what I've said above, us B graders actually do make genuine discoveries which are every bit as exciting as my dreams were when I was a student, really our next paper is going to be so cool!

    So yes there is a difference between A grade and B grade. That doesn't make B grade as worthless as the managers of our CRIs seem to think. But it is real.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3394 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    And despite what I've said above, us B graders actually do make genuine discoveries which are every bit as exciting as my dreams were when I was a student, really our next paper is going to be so cool!

    I have no doubt of that. Charles Darwin rated himself as a B-grader. I think the world has an obsession with grades, frankly. Quite unrealistic views about the importance of high achievers. They're always, by definition, going to be a small number of people, and thus responsible for only a small amount of what gets done, and often at a hidden cost that is really substantial.

    This perpetual rhetoric around the need for excellence in all things, the pursuit of excellence, the development of excellence etc annoys me a lot, particularly in education. Our problem in NZ is not at the excellent end, it's at the other end. An education system focused around excellence seem to me the perfect prescription for massively increasing the number of failures and dropouts, people who are too embarrassed to even have a go because they are not excellent and are never likely to be. The focus should be on perpetual improvement. It's a path to excellence for those with the talent for it, but it's also a path to betterment for everyone.

    The other cost of excellence that is often overlooked is that it's typically achieved by specialization. This is OK to a point, there is economy in specialization, but people can become overspecialized very, very easily. This carries a lot of problems with it. It is extremely risky, can leave those people with nothing if what they are specialized in loses value. It can lead to an inability to understand what is outside of the specialization, which is almost everything. It can create isolated, unhappy, unhealthy people. This is my biggest criticism of an emphasis on vocationally oriented training. I have no problem at all with people taking those paths, but I don't think they need to be pushed to take them or that people who take paths which are far less specific should be discouraged.

    Indeed, I think that if anything, people need more encouragement to develop broad skills than they do to develop specific skills - those sell themselves. It's a much bigger ask to get people to push outside of their comfort zone and work on their weaknesses than it is to let them naturally just go to their strengths. This is the main reason for general schooling, it's why we force kids to learn maths even if they hate it, it's the reason for core subjects. It's the reason for PE, rather than just letting kids do sports in which they will typically pick one and end up with the asymmetric development that almost every sport produces. Dan Carter may be exceptional, but is he model of health? The guy had to sit out the RWC due to injuries.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8541 posts Report Reply

  • Keir Leslie,

    Bart: Why do you think there is a structural under-supply of engineers or scientists? Why do you think there is an oversupply of lawyers or accountants?

    Also you are factually wrong, lawyers and engineers get roughly comparable pay, and training engineers gets a far larger government subsidy than training lawyers.

    In fact, one step to rebalancing the educational economy might be to move away from the heavy subsidising of certain degrees, and towards a more open model that doesn't attempt to pick winners. For instance, arts degrees get very low subsidies, and are then attacked for being uneconomic.

    Since Jul 2008 • 1369 posts Report Reply

  • DeepRed, in reply to BenWilson,

    I have no doubt of that. Charles Darwin rated himself as a B-grader. I think the world has an obsession with grades, frankly. Quite unrealistic views about the importance of high achievers. They’re always, by definition, going to be a small number of people, and thus responsible for only a small amount of what gets done, and often at a hidden cost that is really substantial.

    This. Raising the bar for UE has been touted as one way of focusing on quality rather than quantity, but it's too scattershot to make much difference - there have been cases of high school scholarship students dropping out of varsity, and average-graders making it to post-grad level.
    In Australia, there's restricted UE for those above a certain grade, and for everyone else it's open entry if they pay 100% fees. Not sure if it would work as well in NZ.

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 4306 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Keir Leslie,

    I don't think there's too much wrong with picking winners, Keir. By subsidizing education at all, we are picking winners. But I do think we've picked the wrong ones for quite a while. One thing the country is very short on, for instance, is tradespeople. Bringing back subsidized apprenticeships could do a lot to address this. We've got a city to rebuild, and it might be nice if we had more housing being built too. It would possibly help with youth unemployment as well, particularly at the tail end of "achievement".

    I'm not anti-academic, have an Arts degree and a Science diploma myself, but those were my interests. A kid who hated school is pretty much faced with minimum wage in a dead end job at the moment. Small reason they are becoming tertiary students, even in things that aren't going to lead to jobs. I don't think that's encouraging excellence, quite the opposite.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8541 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to BenWilson,

    Indeed, I think that if anything, people need more encouragement to develop broad skills than they do to develop specific skills – those sell themselves.

    It really worries me sometimes when I get comments from people who are impressed because I can do well in a (microbiology) genetics class while being in a (microbiology) physiology/environmental lab - this is all within a subfield of biology, not even within the wider field or actually between disciplines.

    OTOH, that's in large part because there is so much information in the world it's simply not viable to be a polymath, at least not with any decent knowledge in more than a couple of fields, unless you are truly exceptional - we teach everything Newton knew about physics to people by the time they hit sixth form, frex. To do good work in a field you have to specialise to some extent; it's not optional. And maintaining a broad knowledge base becomes harder and harder the deeper you get.

    But what's also becoming truer, within the sciences, is that the sort of projects that get funded require collaboration between multiple disciplines, and useful collaboration requires interdisciplinary understanding. People pick up that stuff because they have to; it would be good if they knew they needed to in advance. It's one of the reasons I really enjoy astrobiology as a discipline, because it absolutely requires you pay attention to things outside your sub-sub-specialisation.

    Dan Carter may be exceptional, but is he model of health? The guy had to sit out the RWC due to injuries.

    But we don't need everyone to be Dan Carter; we need some Dan Carters. No-one complains that the focus on All Blacks discourages people from playing touch on the weekends. The difference, I think, is that we accept that some people are naturally gifted at sport, but maintain that mental success is almost all the product of hard work and environment.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to BenWilson,

    the importance of high achievers

    Not saying that the B graders aren't valuable. I'm one myself so I bloody well hope I'm valuable.

    But I am saying that genuine A graders are special. I've worked next to a couple of A graders. And they make connections and leaps that no amount of effort on my part would ever be enough to replicate. They often have a breadth of knowledge that is scary. Sure they can be limited and there aren't many of them. But there is simply no way we would make the progress we do in science without their ability.

    I'm deeply jealous of their ability and in awe as well. Exactly the same way I feel about sportspeople and artists. I'm sorry but I disagree with you, I don't think we value the truly talented anywhere near enough. Particularly in NZ.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 3394 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Telfar Barnard, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    They have been seeing, during the student loan era, a shift in the quality of students taking the sciences. these are really bright kids who stand out in the stage I classes (yes lecturers do notice). When they talk to those kids they simply say they'd love to do biology/chemistry/maths but they won't because they want to be able to pay off their loans.

    I can see how the introduction of student loans (and fees at the same time) could have made that kind of difference. It takes a whole lot of altruism (though not necessarily humility, apparently...) and perhaps a small amount of self-indulgence to decide to study anthropology rather than law when you're going to have to pay off a whacking great loan at the end of it either way. But I don't see a small change in the repayment regime changing that a whole lot.

    I had misunderstood Keith's post as meaning that the student allowance limit had been reduced, but I see now he's just raging against the fact it's 200 weeks full stop, rather than that it's been reduced. As far as that goes, yes, it's rubbish. It's particularly rubbish because it's 200 weeks of allowance, not 200 weeks of study. So let's say you start university straight out of high school at 18, and you do +/- 200 weeks of study, which is generally about 5 years, so you're now 23. You decide to work for a couple of years and then go back to do graduate or post-graduate study. So you work for a couple of years and you're now 25.

    For those from really wealthy families, they have no student loan (because the parentals paid for everything) and they're now eligible for a student allowance because they're over 24, so no longer means-tested on their parents income.

    For those from the middle classes, they've probably clocked up a solid-sized loan (which they won't have made much dent in over the two years working), but they're also now eligible for the student allowance.

    But for those from poorer backgrounds, they've now used up their student allowance. They've probably also got a bit of a loan, because the allowance isn't exactly gravy. They're no better off relative to their middle-class classmates than they were at 18, because they've been studying for most of the time since then, and a year of two of working isn't going to have made much difference to their net wealth. But in order to do that graduate or post-graduate study, they're going to have to make that loan bigger. And they're apparently more debt-shy than their middle-class classmates, so less inclined to take on the loan.

    So in sum, the 200-week limit reduces the financial "advantage" of those who were eligible for loans at 18, compared to those who weren't. Not exactly a "closing the gaps" type policy then.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 372 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Telfar Barnard,

    Darn, too late for edit... I meant to add - the financial "advantage" meant to compensate for the financial disadvantage of their starting point.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 372 posts Report Reply

  • DeepRed,

    Mai Chen's 2c worth on the issue.

    The current student allowance system has merely played catch-up from its first incarnation in 1992 - for years it wasn't inflation adjusted, and the Clark Govt did address that somewhat. Also, students are far less likely to resist means-testing than pensioners.

    And I can safely attest from my high school experiences that wealth and intellect don't always have a proportional relationship. Especially the kind of wealth that combines the worst of both worlds - old money snobbery and new money crassness.

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 4306 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to Lucy Telfar Barnard,

    Not exactly a "closing the gaps" type policy then.

    It is consistent with the current govt's ideology to make sure most resource of any kind goes to those who already have more of it. The theory is that it's more effective for society to invest in the already-successful. These folk oddly look very much like the ruling class and who they hang out with. Any opposition movement who can't make hay from that..

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16679 posts Report Reply

  • Matthew Poole, in reply to Lucy Telfar Barnard,

    They’ve probably also got a bit of a loan, because the allowance isn’t exactly gravy.

    Doesn't work like that. If you're getting the student allowance you're not allowed to draw down living costs on your student loan.

    The pit from whence crawl… • Since Mar 2007 • 3908 posts Report Reply

  • chris,

    Charles Darwin rated himself as a B-grader.

    That's still rather high given his pedigree:

    "Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!"

    "the strongest and most active animal should propagate the species, which should thence become improved"

    Erasmus Darwin Zoonomia (1794–1796)

    中国 • Since Jan 2010 • 900 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Bart Janssen,

    But there is simply no way we would make the progress we do in science without their ability.

    Could you give me an example? Some breakthrough that you have personally actually witnessed happening at the hands of a real live genius that you couldn't imagine having been stumbled across by someone else in maybe a little more time? I'm sorry to hack at this point, but seriously, it's something I've simply never seen at work. The comparison with Dan Carter is a poor one really. The guy is good, sure, but double marked, he's not better than two players at once. That's what I'm getting at - that sure, people being brilliant is great and all, but throwing more brains at a problem is usually a reasonable substitute when the best brains aren't available. Considering the best ones are also the most costly, it's often more cost effective too.

    I think you're conferring abilities onto the bright that border on mystical, and that's odd coming from a scientist. Mental work isn't really too much different from physical work, time invested produces eventual output. I'm not prepared to accept that there is something unusual about the sciences in this respect. Why should there be?

    I'm not saying brightness is of no value, of course it is. But it can be overrated easily, it's not a different coin to the way less bright people are, it's just a different quantity of coin. So we may have to agree to disagree - I think we overrate the importance of talent. To me, having spent 20 odd years designing systems to solve difficult problems, it's pretty much axiomatic that if the system requires talent, it's been designed badly. To me the endemic problem in NZ is not that there's not enough brains about, it's that there's not enough money about. People won't pay the money that is required to do things properly, and insist the people doing the work should perform at the highest levels, just because there are geniuses around. This isn't realistic, it's an attitude that leads to constant frustration.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8541 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to chris,

    That’s still rather high given his pedigree:

    The theory of evolution was synthesised from a growing body of evidence and ideas, and someone was going to come up with it sooner or later - modern biology is impossible without it. This is evidenced by the fact that, in fact, two people came up with well-developed theories of evolution at roughly the same time. One of them just had better publicists.

    But making that synthesis - in the detail and extent to which Darwin made it - still takes something. It's not as if every person studying biology and descent came up with the idea at once, or even a large minority of them - it's a long way from "all warm-blooded animals" and "endued by [God] with the power of acquiring new parts" to "all life" and "natural selection". That quote sounds downright Lamarckian, actually ("delivering down those improvements...to its posterity"). The Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection was genuinely new, and genuinely revolutionary. I'm not at all hesitant in saying it, as well as Darwin and Wallace, is a bit special.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to BenWilson,

    Could you give me an example? Some breakthrough that you have personally actually witnessed happening at the hands of a real live genius that you couldn’t imagine having been stumbled across by someone else in maybe a little more time?

    But it's not usually "a little more time", it's "a lot of time", or "a lot of wasted effort and resources looking at the problem the wrong way". It doesn't have to be "I solved the problem!". It can be as simple as "Have you tried doing this experiment/wondering what would happen if/thinking about it this way?" There are people who are good at taking disparate pieces of information and assembling them into a coherent picture, and it's not a skill everyone has, or everyone can learn.

    If you want an example, the best I can think of offhand is mitochondria. Lynn Margulis - actually a professor at my university until her death a few months ago - worked out that they are the remnants of a symbiosis between bacteria and eukaryotes, bacteria that moved into larger cells and never moved out. (So are chloroplasts in photosynthetic eukaryotes.) She drew on earlier work, sure, but she was the one who put the pieces together and pushed the theory forward. Her later hammer/nail issues aside, that was at least a moment of genius. Science isn't solely driven by that level of insight; it can't be. But it requires those contributions to work well.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    It's probably the biggest scientific breakthrough made that century. But Darwin described his discovery of it as a very slow dawning, which might have come to brighter person faster. He felt that he plodded along, building up a story that eventually forced him to conclude something he could well have thought of many years earlier.

    I have conflicted feelings about it's place in science, myself. Obviously, it was extremely important to offer an alternative explanation, and having done that, the view of the natural history of the planet was thrown open to all of the sciences to amass the picture we have today. But is the theory of evolution actually a scientific theory at all? Could it be proved or disproved? It seems to me to be used almost as arbitrarily as religious texts a lot of the time, to try to explain why this or that phenomenon is observed. To my mind, it's real worth is as a viable challenge to teleological arguments for creation. To show that order can emerge from chaos by straightforward phenomena rather than intelligent design. It allows the seeking for the phenomena, which is where all the science happens. I see it as a "negative heuristic" in the Lakatosian sense, one that is common across nearly all science. It's the "don't look for God, look for the laws of nature that could make this happen" rule. Which is not a rule that can be proved true or false, it's just one that is basic to modern science, has to be accepted to continue. Or at least scientists have to act as if they accept that practically. From a logical point of view they don't have to accept it, one can be a religious scientist, just as it is possible to be a Christian without believing in God.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8541 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Telfar Barnard, in reply to Matthew Poole,

    Doesn't work like that. If you're getting the student allowance you're not allowed to draw down living costs on your student loan.

    No, but you can still get a loan for fees and course-related costs, as there's unlikely to be allowance money left over after living costs to cover those things.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 372 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Lucy Stewart,

    There are people who are good at taking disparate pieces of information and assembling them into a coherent picture, and it's not a skill everyone has, or everyone can learn.

    We don't all have it, but suggesting it can't be more widely learned is, IMHO, false. There are a lot of ways of designing processes whereby that kind of thinking is formalized. Guided brainstorming with colleagues, for instance.

    wrt mitochondria, what evidence can you give that it wouldn't have been thought of within a year if Margulis didn't discover it?

    But it's not usually "a little more time", it's "a lot of time", or "a lot of wasted effort and resources looking at the problem the wrong way".

    Care to quantify? Is an A student twice as fast as a B? Ten times faster? Whatever number you pick, that's the number of resources their talents take to replicate. They are therefore not essential at all.

    Science isn't solely driven by that level of insight; it can't be. But it requires those contributions to work well.

    I think it's dangerous to deify scientists on account of their breakthroughs. It's like deifying people's business insight on account of their money. A lot of it is opportunity and luck. Brilliant people are good to have, of course, and they do exist. But I'm constantly surprised by the brilliance of ordinary people.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8541 posts Report Reply

  • Lucy Stewart, in reply to BenWilson,

    But is the theory of evolution actually a scientific theory at all? Could it be proved or disproved?

    1) Yes. 2) Yes. That's....really not in dispute. There is a lot of very fine work qualitatively testing evolution. Lemski's E. coli stuff is one of the more beautiful examples, or the Galapagos finch studies. Or HIV, which pretty much proves it by existing. I could go on.

    wrt mitochondria, what evidence can you give that it wouldn't have been thought of within a year if Margulis didn't discover it?

    Obviously I can't prove a negative, but the fact that she had to shop it to fifteen separate journals before she even got it published suggests that it wasn't likely to emerge anytime soon. As genetics improved, it would have been discovered, no question, at some point - but the discovery at that time was down to Margulis.

    Care to quantify? Is an A student twice as fast as a B? Ten times faster? Whatever number you pick, that's the number of resources their talents take to replicate. They are therefore not essential at all.

    I guess maybe I'm not explaining this so well, but that's not how it works. It's true that, given more people and more work, you can get enough pieces together and some things will become obvious, but the quality of synthesising multiple pieces of information from disparate areas and coming up with an answer - or more importantly, a question - is not a quality merely born of time or opportunity or luck, though all those things do play a role and are prerequisites for people achieving those things. But they are not sufficient. It's a way of thinking that some people are just better at, though it can be learned and honed as well. It's a creative quality, if you like, married to logic.

    And my experience as a working scientist is that people who can do this - learned or innate - are valuable and make science work better. They are not sufficient for science working better (or working at all). They're not essential, even, but damn if they're not good to have. And that being the case - why wouldn't you want to try and get them?

    It's not about deifying people; as I said in an earlier post, often people with this quality are utter crap at other important scientific qualities like staying on task for years at a time or working out how to test their ideas properly. Or, all too often, remembering that they aren't always right. (See also: all the crazy pseudo-science endorsed by Nobel prize-winners over the years. There is a lot of it.) It's not about worshipping them, it's about using what they have to make everyone's work better.

    Amherst, MA • Since Nov 2006 • 2093 posts Report Reply

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