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There are few things that law students at Sydney University and at UNSW will defend more passionately: the quality of their respective institutions – just which law school is better?

I don’t profess to have the answer to this question, because it is unfair for me to answer this question when I have only attended one of them (Sydney). However, surely, a recourse to statistics would provide us with an objective answer?

And with statistics, UNSW has proclaimed themselves the King of Law Schools in Australia. They claim:

The Faculty of Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney leads all Australian universities for the quality of learning and teaching law. This is the second consecutive year the Faculty of Law, together with UNSW Australian School of Business, has achieved the top ranking in the business, law and economics cluster.

This claim is followed by a bunch of graphs that show that UNSW scores higher on a number of metrics, including “overall satisfaction”, “generic skills” and “good teaching” as measured by the Group of Eight. So far, this is all very convincing evidence that UNSW is better, right?

As Daniel pointed out when we were perusing these graphs together, there is a fundamental flaw with the statistics as presented. Where would they obtain measurements for metrics such “overall satisfaction” from? From their graduates of course. Unless they performed some kind of normalisation between the different universities, the outcome is liable to be affected by, for example, the difference between what Sydney and UNSW law students expect from their courses (maybe Sydney students just demand more?) or bias arising from the pride that students have in their own institution.

Clearly, statistics are one factor to consider in your choice of law school or university. However, it would be a mistake to base your decision merely on these statistics, or other statistics such as the proportion of graduates in full-time employment after a year (maybe more students from a particular university went into post-graduate study?). There is more to university than that. You need to consider the experience outside the classroom, in the form of clubs and societies and extracurricular activities. There is also a difference in culture that you need to consider. This was best highlighted for me when I watched the UNSW Law Revue last year; their jokes weren’t funny to me for the most part, yet all the UNSW-ers seemed to enjoy it; I put it down to a difference in culture.

So what do I think? I certainly don’t regret choosing Sydney University (for both my science and law degrees). I enjoy the intellectualism that pervades the place, although law students at Sydney tend to be more competitive than I find optimal.

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I was going with Ru Jih to Darling Harbour last week (she hasn’t been there before!) when we ran into the Earth from Above exhibition, a series of breathtaking aerial photographs displayed alongside the pathway from Haymarket to Darling Harbour (adjacent to the so-called “Urban Stream”). Photographed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, the idea behind the exhibition is to focus attention on sustainable development, and short factoids about the impact of human development accompanied the photographs.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that at Darling Harbour, or for that matter, in Sydney – I was nicely surprised to come by it. Given my recent comments on how Sydney feels like a doughnut, hollow in the centre, compared with Melbourne, I’d have to say this is a positive step forward, in bringing some sense of “culture” back into the city. Danielle didn’t seem to think so; on hearing about it, he commented, “this would be high culture… what about the culture that develops naturally. the vibe of a city”.

I guess you can’t please everyone. I just wished that I had known about it before – but it’s there till 26 December if you’re interested in seeing it.

In any case, Darling Harbour will have to wait another day; we used up all our time looking at the pictures.

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I promised to write a little more thoughtfully about my trip down in Melbourne, but I’ve been a little lazy and it’s been over a week. Apparently, the longer you leave it, the rosier your memories become, so I may very well be extolling non-existent virtues of Melbourne.

So, the hard question first up: is Melbourne better than Sydney? In some respects, yes. Just like this Heckler heckles, Sydney’s CBD is becoming increasingly hollowed out by the dearth of things to do in the heart of the business district — this is none more evident than in the area just south of Circular Quay. (For those of you who don’t know me well, the ample abundance of clubbing does not count.) Melbourne, on the other hand, lives up to its reputation as being a “network of villages” — pockets of life are sewn together by a carpet of restaurants and cafés that spill out into the street, odd pieces of street furniture, often slightly eccentric, and the well-designed public spaces that make you want to appreciate the city’s beauty at night. Clearly, it hasn’t worked everywhere though; the Docklands was something I was looking forward to see, but although the sleek, modern buildings complemented the smooth tranquility of the waterfront, it was devoid of life — but perhaps it was just the wrong night for that. During the day, Melbourne’s full of the hustle and bustle that you’d expect to find in a city that’s confident of itself and how it can make its own way without blandly copying what others have done before — it’s easy to get lost just wandering around the shopping centres (Melbourne makes shopping centres sexy) and the alleyways that the city is famous for.

The other thing that I’ll comment on is the transport, and for this I’ll drop the rosy language and get a little more objective. Trams are a fantastic idea, but I can see why it might not work so well in Sydney. Trams steam ahead without being forced to start and stop and start and stop by the rest of the traffic on the road (buses in Sydney make me think of priority inversion), but in order to achieve this, you need dedicated tram lanes — Melbourne’s main streets are noticeably wider than than those in Sydney (say, compared with George, Pitt and Castlereigh Streets) and thus you can afford to give an entire lane to trams. If you’re hopping around the CBD, you don’t really have to walk a lot because of how the lines are set up — which is how public transport should be — hop on, hop off at will. Trains were bewildering though. I don’t understand how you can run a train system where you can get from A to B by train, but there’s no way to get from B to A without taking a tortuous route (the station staff just told us to catch a tram instead). Seemingly obvious (to tourists at least) routes between popular stations just don’t exist, and if you’re just hopping around the CBD, you’re best off pretending the trains don’t exist. Southern Cross station, however, is one impressive piece of architecture, and it just shows how Sydney has fallen too far in favouring utilitarian function over form.

Will I be visiting again? Yes, definitely, if I’m after a break in civilisation (as opposed to a break with rocks and trees and things), Melbourne is the place to be. As you probably noticed, we spent the entire trip basically in the CBD — next time, I’d be sure to have a look a little further out, and see what gems lie outside the (attractive) stainless steel and glass jungle.

Lots of photos: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

P.S. Wikitravel is quite useful and clearly contains tips from everyday locals who know best: see, for example, the Melbourne entry.

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