Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Belshaw's World - problem solving & the second table on the left

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 6 April 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

Back in Armidale last week for my UNE paper.

It’s always interesting coming back after a gap. Armidale is still my home town, but the process of change carries the city on. Those of us who have left cannot directly participate.

This has its disadvantages. It can leave the city that we knew frozen in aspic, a place fixed in a past space and time. That said, we can perhaps see the city and its institutions more clearly than those who live there all the time. We see the differences; they see the things that are the same.

Last Friday was graduation. I hadn’t known that until I tried to arrange accommodation. Everything was booked.

While I do have friends that I can stay with, I don’t like doing that on business trips. In this case, I was too preoccupied with the paper I had to give. I would have been very bad company.

Fortunately, the friendly and efficient Louise from the Visitor Information Centre was able to find me accommodation at the Sandon B&B. As a former chair of Tourism Armidale I was impressed.

Mind you, I hope that I have got Louise’s name right! I didn’t write it down. Still, even if I’m wrong, I hope that those involved will recognise who I mean.

I have written a fair bit in this column on the need for Armidale to show a welcoming face to visitors. Louise did just that, as did Tini and Gerard Oude Avenhuis at Sandon B&B.

Tina and Gerard were wonderfully hospitable, the accommodation superb. This included a bed to die for, the most comfortable queen size bed I’ve slept in. Getting away had been a battle, so it was wonderful to collapse into a good bed. Best night’s sleep for ages!

Friday morning quite early I went out to the university, my camera with me.

All those years ago when I was an undergraduate, the second table on the left in the refectory was ours. We spent many hours there drinking coffee, talking and doing last minute essays.

This year they tables had been reorganised. The second table on the left was back and vacant. So I took my coffee and sat there doing last minute reviews on the paper just as I had done all those years before.

I had a lot of material that I wanted to cover, too much for a 45 minute paper, so I was trying to work out how best to summarise and focus.

The social changes that swept the broader new state New England over the period 1050 to 2000 were quite dramatic.

In the first half of the period change, while substantial, did not destroy historical continuity. Over the second half, change was so substantial that it actually introduced a fundamental historical discontinuity.

In 1950, all newspapers and radio stations were locally owned. When TV came, it too was locally owned. By 2,000, local ownership had shrunk to a handful of independent newspapers.

That’s just one example of a widely replicated pattern. But how best to summarise?

Restless, I put my papers away and walked down to look at the graduation preparations.

A steady stream of graduates and family were wandering up the hill towards Bool. The place looked a real treat.

It’s really a beautiful campus. I did wonder, however, why the Bool tennis courts were unkempt.

I had noticed this before. That, I guess, is another example of the changes that I have been talking about. I felt a bit sad because of the role that those courts once played in UNE life.

After the paper, there was morning tea in the staff room. I spent a fair bit of time in that staff room when I was back at UNE doing some postgraduate research.

Over coffee we talked among other things about ERA, or Excellence in Research for Australia. Ever heard of it?

From the inelegant English, you can guess that it’s a Government initiative. Its practical effects are equally inelegant.

ERA is one of those benchmarking exercises so beloved by current Governments and officials. It aims to benchmark research in Australian universities against international standards.

This may sound reasonable, but ERA is actually yet another example of the type of thing that I was talking about in my paper, a Government induced change that is adversely affecting Australian university education in general, New England in particular.

When I say New England, I don’t mean just the University, but Northern NSW in general. I will explain why in my next column.

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