Students suffer pandemic slump

Students across the world suffered historic setbacks in reading and maths during the pandemic, according to a global analysis.

What we know:

  • The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) undertook the first study examining the academic progress of students in 81 countries during the pandemic (AP); 
  • The analysis found the average international maths score fell by the equivalent of three-quarters of a year of learning, while reading scores fell by half a year;
  • A quarter of students tested are now considered low performers in maths, reading and science, meaning they struggle to perform basic maths problems or interpret simple texts;
  • The report stated the results points to an “unprecedented drop in performance,” and that although the disruption of the pandemic was a major factor, there was “no clear difference” in performance trends between countries that had limited school closures and those with longer closures;
  • Singapore had the highest scores by far in every subject, with Estonia and Canada also performing well, while Albania, Jordan and Iceland had huge falls in math scores;
  • Australia's results in maths, science and reading held steady to the last assessment in 2018 and, given much of the world went backwards, its ranking improved (ABC); 
  • The data however revealed almost half of Australian students still failed to reach national standards in those subjects, and overall our performance has declined since the early 2000s;
  • Some experts have cautioned against reading too much into PISA findings due to the difficulty in comparing scores and ranks across different education systems (The Conversation); 
  • The PISA report also found Australians from wealthier backgrounds outperformed students from less-privileged families, with performance in reading, science and maths declining at a faster rate for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds;
  • It comes amid revelations that Australian public schools are underfunded by more than $6bn a year, with politicians twice as likely as the general public to be privately educated (The Saturday Paper). 
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Higgins defiant on last day on stand

Brittany Higgins has concluded her evidence to the defamation trial of Bruce Lehrmann, fending off accusations she had tried to “blow-up” his re-trial for her alleged rape.

What we know:

  • Higgins fronted the court on Tuesday for her final day of testimony in the defamation trial Lehrmann has brought against media for coverage of Higgins’ claims he sexually assaulted her, which Lehrmann has consistently denied (ABC); 
  • Lehrmann's barrister, Steven Whybrow, grilled Higgins about an impassioned speech she gave after the jury was discharged in Lehrmann’s abandoned rape trial, suggesting the speech was intended to “blow up a retrial”;
  • Higgins rejected that, noting she’d “just gone through a criminal trial, I wasn’t hiding from anyone”;
  • Higgins was also asked about why she later posted on social media that she would give evidence in any defamation case brought by Lehrmann, and said it was because she “would not let my rapist become a millionaire for being a rapist” (The Guardian); 
  • Higgins also revealed she received $2.3m from the Commonwealth after putting in a personal injury claim, although it was ultimately reduced to $1.9m because of legal fees and taxes;
  • It was another emotional day of testimony for Higgins, who was last week accused by Whybrow of making up the sexual assault to protect her job, of lying to the police and giving false statements in her own criminal matter (The Saturday Paper). 

National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

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Fierce fighting in southern Gaza

Israeli forces have stormed southern Gaza's main city in what military officials described as the most intense day of fighting yet in the ground war.

Israel reports its troops have surrounded Khan Younis and reached the heart of the city, while Hamas said its fighters had destroyed or damaged 24 Israeli military vehicles and snipers had killed or wounded eight Israeli soldiers (Reuters). 

At Nasser Hospital, the wounded were transported in by ambulance, flatbed truck and donkey cart after what survivors described as a strike on a school being used as a shelter for the displaced (Washington Post). 

The population of Khan Younis has swelled from 400,000 to an estimated 1.2m due to an influx of refugees who were ordered by Israel to flee south from northern Gaza (BBC). 

Israel has now ordered a fifth of Khan Younis to evacuate further south towards the Egyptian border.

Top UN emergency relief official Martin Griffiths said “every time we think things cannot get any more apocalyptic in Gaza, they do … people are being ordered to move again, with little to survive on, forced to make one impossible choice after another” (CNN).

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RBA holds rates for Christmas

The Reserve Bank has opted to hold steady on interest rates at its monthly meeting, sparing Australian families a Christmas rate hike.

The decision means the cash rate target will be put on ice at 4.35% until at least early February, when the board meets next (The New Daily). 

RBA governor Michele Bullock said “limited” economic data since rates rose in November was “in line with expectations”.

“Holding the cash rate steady at this meeting will allow time to assess the impact of the increases in interest rates on demand, inflation and the labour market,” Bullock said.

December quarter inflation data to be released on January 31 will be the next big clue for the RBA in determining whether inflation has eased fast enough to spare mortgage holders higher rates down the track.

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Uni wage theft tops $150m

Australian university staff have lost almost $159m in stolen wages, according to a new report.

The analysis by the National Tertiary Education Union indicates more than 97,000 employees in the sector have been underpaid by a combined $158.7m (SBS). 

There were 55 wage-theft incidents across 32 higher education institutions, with most taking place since 2014.

Melbourne University had underpaid employees by the most, wiith $45m in lost wages to more than 30,000 workers.

In second and third place with underpayments of $18m and $14.7m respectively were the University of Wollongong and the University of Sydney.

The report is not a comprehensive assessment of underpayment in the sector, with eight wage theft cases still ongoing in courts.

"Unaccountable vice-chancellors on million-dollar salaries have been in charge of this crisis with almost no accountability. If universities are to finally become exemplary employers, then we need to end the scourge of casualisation using state and federal powers, including funding," said NTEU national president Alison Barnes.

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It’s like the cash cow had come out, and there was cash flying everywhere.

WA Police Commissioner Col Blanch confirms that $40,000 in cash was found blowing around a Perth freeway. A man was later arrested in possession of 50 grams of cocaine and $8000 that he’d yet to throw out his car window (ABC).

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Postscript: Invisible Landscapes

In 2018, scientists discovered a new organ in the human body. You’d think after centuries of cutting ourselves open, we’d know the intimate details of the structures within us by now. Strangely, this body part wasn’t missed because it was invisible; it was overlooked because of what our belief systems wouldn’t let us perceive (Orion).

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