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Nirmal Nair on a university challenge, free tertiary education in Germany, the story of 3D printing, global energy snapshot, electricity blackouts, Dilbert & more

Nirmal Nair on a university challenge, free tertiary education in Germany, the story of 3D printing, global energy snapshot, electricity blackouts, Dilbert & more

Today's Top 10 is a guest post from Nirmal-Kumar Nair, an associate professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Auckland.

As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below or via email to And if you're interested in contributing the occasional Top 10 yourself, contact

See all previous Top 10s here.

For this issue of Top 10, I would like to share items around trends in education, some countervailing notions around the impact of patents, and revisit the global energy-emission picture in 2015.

1. Programming skills ‘coding’ compulsory in UK schools. Should NZ follow?
During my last Top 10 Guest series, I had an item on the state of New Zealand’s high-school performance in comparison to OECD statistics.

Continuing in the same vein, the announcement of compulsory learning of programming skills by UK 5 year olds warrants attention. Is this the start of a big unproven experiment that some newspapers report? 

Should NZ follow the UK’s lead to address the potential skills gap of software engineers the country might face in the future?

2. Are Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCS)  a challenge to traditional university education?
MOOCs have been a big buzz word since inception in 2012-13.

Trials run by MIT and Stanford received great publicity and attracted the attention of University administrators. The billion dollar question is, is there a business model for MOOCS?

My personal opinion is that universities are there to stay simply because of the enduring experience that every young adult receives through this institution. Of course this will bring to the fore very big decisions for universities (those that offer degrees/diplomas across the board) to appropriately trim or grow in different areas.

Obviously engineering, medicine, science and technology do not particularly appear to be challenged because of the element of professional practice that needs to be imparted. Some other disciplines are facing the heat.

3. The role of endowments in high-raking universities (USA, UK exemplars).
22 US universities (schools) hold 50% of the total country’s endowment funding enrol 5% of higher education students.

UK institutions of repute also have benefited from this mechanism

In recent years warning bells are being raised indicating flight of high-achieving UK students to endowment strong US universities.

New Zealand does not have a very big culture around endowments. Things might evolve in the future.

4. Is the cost of tertiary education likely to come down?
Here I would like to report on two extremes around tuition fees, US and Germany.

There are some reports speculating how the cost of US education (average $60,000 for a 4 year degree) might come down in the future.

Germany has recently scrapped its tuition fee experiment introduced in 2006 and has reverted back to being free.

For New Zealand universities, it is almost definite we'll see rises in the future.  If readers are interested in knowing what the professional value of Kiwi tertiary education is a new app has been released this year.

5. Toyota to release hydrogen car patents following up on Tesla 
In my September 2014 Guest Top 10 contribution, I flagged through item 8 the news release of all the electric vehicle patents opened by Elon Musk, Tesla CEO.

This was following up the break-up of the Toyota-Tesla partnership. Each decided to go their own way in developing ‘futuristic” solutions for personal travel that was identified in my May 2014 Guest Top 10 contribution (item # 10)

Toyota early this year  opened up their hydrogen fuel-cell technology patents.

6. The story of 3-D printing and its patent history
3-D technology application development is much in the news these days. Some snapshots:




But the patents for this technology, around additive manufacturing and selective sintering, were expiring, generating this sudden explosion of new application areas:

Is this an example of patenting ideas too soon before it's time?

7. Follow-up on the global energy snapshot since May 2014
In my May 2014 Top 10, I wrote about 10 trends around global energy and emissions.

A quick stock check, 8 months later, shows oil prices fall aligning with the shale gas influx (item # 6) impacting on the marginal spot and future prices. The lower oil price is reported not to have impacted on real investments in green technologies though. 

The long term trends and strategies identified in my May 2014 Top 10 still appear to be relevant.

8. Comparative assessment of GHG emissions of the USA and New Zealand

Total U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector in 2012

As can be seen NZ’s agricultural emissions are almost 4.6 times that of the US, but only one-third comparatively for the industrial sector.

New Zealand reports energy related emissions which includes electricity (lesser) and transportation together. The US, with larger penetration of coal generation stock, has an electricity contribution of 32% and together with transportation accounts for 60% compared to our 42.2%.  Reduction choices going forward for New Zealand will have to be in agriculture and transportation.

9. Frequency and magnitude of electricity blackouts rising
Electricity blackouts in the US are almost 2.8 times higher than in 1984.

The situation in the UK also suggests imminent large outages.

The world’s biggest electricity outage was recorded in India in 2012.

10.  The future of digital bureaucracy: A delightful article on “Algorithmic Regulation”
A persistent annoyance for many people is unnecessary bureaucracy at work places. 

These days, in an IT intensive workplace, the prevalent engagement towards internal process is becoming more through sending requests to a generic email and the constant back and forth of response emails.

How far will this really get to?   I enjoyed reading this article around cybernetics and its manifestation in what the author has termed 'algorithmic regulation'.

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


The problem with universities is that they are cost plus organisations. They put the fees up by the maximum allowable every year. Each university is automonous and there is a reluctance for cross crediting from one to another. Why can't common courses at 100 level all be similar between universities for example? All courses are currently bespoke and many have very low numbers. Why can't statistics 101 be common to all universities and polytechnics? At the moment they are all different.
Universities, as they are, cannot cope with increasing demand. How are they going to educate a billion Chinese or a billion Indians for example? Not by fitting 100 students at a time in a lecture room. This pedagogy is thousands of years old. Many students don't even go to lectures. Cost and access shut many out of careers. 
Online is the way to go for lower level courses with research based higher level papers.  
How current is a lot of the research? Many papers I have seen presented have very old data. Lecturers are very good at recycling the same research year after year.
There is a lot of room to create efficiencies and cut costs. At the moment the poor student and taxpayer are paying for a very inefficient system. 
MOOCs are only the beginning. 

I'd like to see online courses provided for free.  Then we could improve the education of the population without embeggering into debt before they even find a career, or even make it easier for them to change once they are in a career.  Obviously you would have to do some work with a tutor, but that could be minimised by making all the information available online.  The open polytechnic is an example of this, but a lot of the stuff needs to come through the mail, or it did the last time I used it.  It's not free, but it's not that expensive, I'm not overly interested in the piece of paper you get at the end, as long as I have a basic handle of the concepts I'm happy.  As to relevance and how old the papers are, well I don't think that matters too much.  How many people with a degree can remember exactly everything after 10 years?  The concepts you use you will stay up to date with, those you don't were only in the course to prove you can learn, which to me is all a degree is.  A piece of paper saying you can learn, doesn't say anything else.

Free on line courses

Thats pretty cool.

Um, I think you have some mis-conceptions and seem to ramble....
So what do you expect Unis to be, money losers?  Unis dont aim to make a subsantial profit as such, so sure they are cost, plus a bit to allow for bad years etc. SO I cant see this point.
Not a problem with meeting demand but the ability for someone to pay. There is a limit on what the Govn will fund and hence a limit on places, blame the purse holder, not the provider.
The courses with low numbers seem to be getting cut and that includes the staff.
What has funding got to do with a Billion non-NZers?  The world seems to be awash with Unis wanting to have foreign students as they pay 100% of the courses. 
"Inefficient" yes we here all the time that hospitals, schools all things public is awful and needs a good clean up and to be made "efficient'. Very easy to say really hard to prove and sunstantiated, and you dont provide much proof of your ascertions?
Research, as far as I know this isnt presented to under-graduates very much as its going to be mostly beyond them, it isnt 101 type stuff. So graduates get the 101, 201, 301, 401 type of thing, then get their degree. Later, wannabe MAs and PhDs, professors etc see and do the bleeding edge research, I suspect a graduate wouldnt even understand it.
The "very old data" in standard text books is the 101 thing, the standardisation you say isnt, um there.  

FREE universtiy in Germany ?
NZ Population 4,5 m with around 2,3 million employed and paying tax
German population 83 million of which 90% of working age people are emplyed
German GDP is $  3,730,261,000,000.
NZ GDP $185,788,000,000
Germany is a HUGE economy , they can afford to do just about anything ......

Except bailout Greece ;p

Germany has a HUGE economy and a HUGE population compared to NZ.
A HUGE population leads to HUGE numbers of people in teriary education, so they can't afford to do just anything, limited funding has to be carefully allocated.
Their GDP/capita is higher, perhaps because they have a higher skilled workforce due to free education?

their GDP is higher because they've got merchantile contacts and banking investments.  "paper money".

higher skilled workforce means nothing unless the producers can pass those prices on in sales

not to mention a fixed currency within the EU, and the EUR is much lower then a Deutchmark would be.  Witness the wonder of the EURO.

higher skilled workforce is everything if it means your workers are producing more for the same input.  

Instead of 'free university' in NZ, how abour free certain degrees or courses in university in NZ.
I'd make all science degrees and courses free first.

Boatman, stop being so one-eyed.
Why did you not mention the number of German students compared to the number of NZ students -
Answer - Because it did not suit your argument.

Back in 1989 Ergophobia (and others) advised Phil Goff (yes, NZ student loans were a Labour invention, they just did not get the time in office to implement them) to simply increase the top tax rate by 1% - a near perfect fit for tertiary education"user pays" (that was in the days before Haka and bone-carving degrees).   

I left engineering because the pay was poor and the job security low.  I was made redunadant 3 times in 20 years and threatended with it twice if I didnt go to hell holes in the third world, or south island (same thing).  Not once in IT has that happened. Sure ppl may want engineers as long as they are cheap and disposable, you cant make a living/life like that.

After not getting through (mostly for financial reasons) my BE, I was trying to get my Associates Cert, and take that course when someone said to me; you should judge the future of your career by looking at the people around you that have 30 - 40 years in that career path - because that's going to be you in 30-40 years.

I still wouldn't mind finishing the BE one day, but looking around...stuff getting in that career line.  Zero decision control.  Zero market control.  Viewed as totally replacable by executives - in fact unlike the decision maker careers old engineers were seen as reserved, technological backward (like valves in a IC world).  Yet that was because of the outcome the decision makers and their inability to understand the engineering world (ie you don't use wanky new technology in anything big or that you want to still be around in 10 years).  Sadly those same people felt threatened should an engineer emerge from his cave/grotto/bowels of the ship to market himself (and engineers are team workers, not usually competitive backstabbers - in engineering, you don't want to be the strongest beam left standing)

BE in what type of engineering?
civil, mech?

To be honest there is no point. a) the pay is poor, b) the job security is poor and c) you will be competing against 20~30 smethings who will do anything for less money. d) you will get treated like sh*te.

That can be said for most professions unless you are truly talented or a rain maker.

Yep, hence spending money to complete if its for this is risky, to do it for your own satisfaction, yes that is fine.

steven, was your engineering civil?  I thought that was well paying, and stable?

I have a biased mechanical degree.  B.Eng (Hons) Building Services and Energy Engineering, before that OND and HND in Marine Engineering.  
So I had some particular interests in a) passive cooling techniques, ie using cold air and building mass not to need air con.   b)  energy efficiency. In NZ no one wanted such buildings, it was how cheap can you build it as the tenant pays the energy costs not the landlord.
Civil Engineering is a general mechanical degree. My one branches off that after 2 years into the above for 3 years, my Degree isnt done in NZ.
My cousin is 40, he's a civil engineer and he is now in OZ as there wasnt the  work here for any decent money.  So no I wouldnt say so, in fact I'd tell everyone who listens dont waste your time.

(1) Coding? No.  Computing Systems logic in year 9 and 10. Obvious language to use : javascript 

Very common, easy, complete, cheap, some moderately advanced functionality, and excellent gateway language. Language design is common and object orientated and capable of iterative behaviour.


(2) MOOCS... what are they worth on the market? what are they worth as education?

Bums on screens to get government program funding and knock out all the private low hanging fruit.


(4) Perhaps they should find jobs for the NZ engineers or increase the numbers supported (used to be competitive entry with a maximum number of entrants as opposed to pass mark when I was at auckland Uni).   Perhaps they should get some Indian engineers, they train their kids for engineering the same way NZ schools try to train NZ kids for science jobs that don't exist in our country.   It is said that India is the only country where everyone trains as an engineer before going out and deciding what they really want to do with their life.



(6) What type of 3D printer do you personally own?  (ie many people find out the expensive way about how deep Hype Creek is, and see all the paddles floating by).


(7) supply price drops have to work their way through the entire system, AND be sustainable for repeat buying to be passed on to the next stage in distribution.  Your model allows to this time delay in each sequential step?  (use FPGA rather than PLA, it will allow you to introduce the dealy)


(8) you get an F on this assignment, you forgot to scale for amplitude (volume).  If NZ cut it's agriculture in half, how much would that reduce compared to the US 10%?  Such information as displayed is only worthy of Four Colour Brochures.



(9) Your population and commercial sectors are increasing...your generation and distribution is static.

Stop acting like a PHB.


(10)  We had this discussion back in the '80s.   How much time would staff waste trying to type their own stuff if email actually took off.  Given that it's easier to write memos (then on paper) than work.

The only education you need today is how to play the game, be corrupt and make millions.
We used to call corruption by its real name "Corruption" now we just shrug and call it "Crony capitalism"
Crony capitalism is just legalised corruption.
Legalise the way you give taxpayer money to your mates and your businesses. Privatise the profit and socialise the losses. Thats croney capitalism (Corruption)
Yes the art of corruption is the best subject to study.
Lets all just learn how to rip off the system

This would also be a viable business model for Greece. Distance education in the fine art of corruption and nepotism. Italy might want to have a stab, too. 
Btw, "crony capitalism" is not really the ultimate euphemism for corruption. It is "networking" :-) ... 

Do you honestly think that corruption and tax avoidance in the European Union is confined purely to Greece and Italy? After all its not only in Greece that the Greek shipping tycoons are tax exempt. I'll give you a clue. The Nation starts with U and ends in K. Not to mention the fact that the majority of the world's tax havens are British colonial territories or dependencies. 
btw Syriza announced that they wish to abolish the tax exemptions favoring the Greek shipping magnates. It will remain to be seen whether the dire consequences predicted by the shipping indusry will come to fruition.
And which country had the largest banking bailout in the Eurozone? It wasn't Ireland, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy, Greece, or France, or Portugal? Who then could it be? It was Gerrrrmany. The paragon of economic and financial virtue.

Look at the position of Greece and Italy in the international corruption index, about 70 or so out of 175 countries investigated. NZ stands at rank 2 and Germany at position 12. Discussion closed.
As to bank bail-out. Please let Greece bail out its banks as much as it likes, with its OWN money. You get the concept? Own money, not OTHER PEOPLES money. It is a difference, you know. Well, maybe not in the Greek psyche.
I have spent a lot of time in Italy at least. It is Italians who suffer most from their corrupt social structures and long for change. Unfortunately, Germany and the rest of the EU keep baling out the criminal elites in Italy and Greece so that no real change is coming about.  

Do you mean the corruption "perception" index, put out by Transparency International? An organization coincidently based in Germany? Not to mention when its local chapter was embroiled in a corruption scandel of its own in recent years.

nepotism is alive in NZ...

Net wealth per capita is on average significantly higher in Greece than Germany. Greek ship owner billionaires are still fully tax exempt. Greece received 100 billion Euro in debt forgiveness in 2012 already. Greece practically did not reform anything since 2010. It is still as corrupt and unproductive and pathetic as ever. Great reasons for Germany and the rest of the EU to lend or gift the Greek tricksters yet more? I dont think so. Of course, generous, kind hearted Kiwis are free to donate. I get a Greek government account number, if there are any takers. Funny, isn't it?
Sad to see primitive anti-German sentiment still alive and kicking here, however, mostly by people who know bugger all about the place and probably watch too much trash tele in general. However, I do agree that the German government should have never meddled in Greek affairs. No bail-out, Greek bankruptcy, collapsing banks, new crisis, lower Auckland house prices. In that sense, yes, Germany, do us all a favor and stop bailing out the crooks of the world.
While I do not think much at all of German government policy esp. the highly overestimated former Communist cadre Merkel, free tertiary education is one of the very few good aspects. Everyone deserves a fair go in education and a country that does not want or is incapable of extending it is in my view not living up to its most basic responsibilities. I personally know Kiwis studying in Germany who enjoy the prospect of a debt-free start into life.

Do you have any data on the net wealth per capita?  I know average wages are much higher in Germany.  I recall that NZ has alreay gifted Greece about 25 million via the IMF conduit.

Try the original study by the ECB: which is a bit scientific, and search for the newspaper articles which were published around that time for an easy to read summary.
It may well be that wages in Germany are higher than in Greece, but Germans have to pay tax (in fact after Belgium the 2nd highest in the EU) while in Greece gross is about net due to systemic tax avoidance and corrpution in the tax office - which has not changed since 2010. Several Greel tax commissioners who tried changing things got the sack. I guess that went conveniently unreported in NZ.
NZ donated 25 miollion to Greece, while there are thousands of malnourished children in NZ. I say: this is criminal conduct.

If greece reformed nothing since 2010, how did they get to start running primary budget surpluses?

It is common knowledge that Greece entered the Euro based upon fraudulent accounting. 
Investigations into the alleged "primary surplus" also pointed strongly to fraudulent reporting, as far as I know. In other words, they cooked their books, as usual.
Another point: it is also common knowledge that the Greek "elite" keeps hundreds of billions hidden in offshore accounts. Why do Kiwis pay 25 million to Greece while the money of the Greek rich remains untouched? This is plain crazy.
Or maybe, as we learn every day that terror in the name of Islam has nothing to do with Islam, Greek debt has nothing to do with Greece? Maybe wiseman Krugman said that? 

maybe if you tried reading?
here you go,
"Here’s the basic point: Greece has, through incredible sacrifice, managed to achieve a primary budget surplus"
On top of that what they did you decimated their economy, so it was a failure.

Krugman is not a reliable source. Better look at numbers than this man's opinions. 

I also hear that the "Net Wealth Depleted Taxpayer Retirement Fund"  is not going to invest in the SKY protection income racket.
Some say it was going to be a gamble, putting all the poor savers other assets into a high rise, high risk project.
Some say that we must contribute to the deflationary market to take advantage of the losses we could offset against the inflationary rises in crap crack houses and poor farmer and Solid Energy expectations, derived and planned to take advantage of the liquid structures designed to migrate inflows and outflows of commodities between like minded speculatory and free market for some, tax beneficial and discountable transactions.
Using said savers and taxpayers dwindling returns, ad infinitum, ad nauseum and in the National interest of declining rates, inflated amalgamated rates and inflated Jaffa expectations. of increased migrant flow.
The HSBC is watching with bated breath as an opportunity may rise from the offsetting manipulation of an otherwise uncoroborated and uncorrupt loophole, however small and crony it may be, growth upon gross..
The odds have been calculated to the nth degree, Houses will rise, Council Houses will fall,
Real estate will never be real again, nor made to feel at home, it may be even be seen as  a tax deductible lurch to the right.
Whilst some will be left,,out. completely, though born here. No matter their savings, their deposits, their leverage, as the sky may be the limit for a flutter..

Days to the General Election: 27
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.