Still blogging, just not here

My new blog is here.

My new blog

I start my new job at the Grattan Institute tomorrow, and one thing that will change as a result is my blogging. The change won’t be too big, but as one of Grattan’s public faces I need to make sure that my blogging doesn’t detract from Grattan’s focus on areas where ‘fact-based analysis’ can contribute to public debate.

While I don’t think facts alone can settle all or even a majority of debates in contemporary politics, the most productive debates are usually around evidence and empirical relationships.

I don’t believe that more than a small minority of people acquire their basic worldview from reading or intellectual reflection. Worldviews are largely the product of socialisation, life experience, and personality. While I have an enduring interest in political philosophy, and especially liberal political philosophy, I don’t think this kind of intellectual endeavour is primarily about persuading people who are not already in the same broad ideological space. Rather, political philosophy helps turn the intuitions that come from a general worldview into something more coherent. For this reason, my overtly classical liberal writing has been aimed mostly at people who share some of my normative assumptions, rather than a wider audience.

People are far more open to persuasion on empirical grounds, and this is one reason I have generally taken this approach (apart from being the kind of person who reads ABS reports out of pure interest). While some people insist on their own idiosyncratic take on what the facts are, not many flatly deny that empirical evidence is important. The way I read Grattan’s approach, it is to work in this empirical space – not denying that more ideological perspectives are important, but leaving those to other people and organisations. So that’s what I will be doing too during my time with Grattan.

I decided that the easiest way to keep blogging while keeping within a slightly narrower brief was to set up a new blog, This blog will stay online, but from 15 August 2011 upates will be at the new blog.

The rise and partial fall of full-fee students

DEEWR is painfully slow to release new data, but they deserve credit for at least making old data more accessible with their new online uCube facility. Constructing trend data has often meant collating data from each separate year, but uCube will now speed that for many items in the higher education student data collection.

Though it required some quick extra calculations from me, the figure below shows trends in the proportion of full-time equivalent students who are full fee. The proportion went from a bit over a quarter in 2001, to more than 40% in 2009. The trend will have reversed since: the over-enrolment frenzy for Commonwealth-supported students is pushing up their numbers, while full-fee undergraduate domestics are being phased out and international student numbers are down. If we are lucky, DEEWR will produce the exact numbers sometime late in 2012.

Proportion of students who are full fee in Australian universities

How will deregulating uni places affect regional unis?

In today’s Higher Education Supplement, University of New England VC Jim Barber becomes one of the first non-Group of Eight VCs to raise questions about what happens when the supply of university places is deregulated, while prices remain at flat regulated levels. He fears that regional universities like his own will lose out as metro universities expand.

I have no sympathy for the old higher education system, run in the interests of institutions rather than students. We should not narrow students’ options so they have to end up at a regional university, if they want a university education at all. But nor should we deprive universities like UNE of the tools of competition, particularly on price.

The figure below, from a University of Melbourne analysis of international student fees, shows that regional unis have charged low fees to give themselves market share. Indeed, on average several of them earn roughly the same amount for an international as a domestic student (the figure also gives quite a few clues as to how the money is spent).

Read the rest of this entry »

Vested and public interests

Back in January, Wotif founder Graeme Wood attracted media attention for making the largest ever single donation to a political party, $1.6 million to the Greens:

Mr Wood said his donation was motivated by disappointment with Labor and Coalition policies on climate change and the environment.

“I didn’t think either of those parties were being effective,” he said. “They were being driven by people with vested interests.“(emphasis added)

But in an a story for the Weekend AFR (paywall) Wood says that he:

..saw the $1.6 million donation as a defensive move that saved him many millions of dollars.

“I was a bit concerned that if the Coalition got in a lot of my investments in environmental causes would have been down the plughole.”

Admittedly Wood’s environmental investments do not from this article seem highly oriented towards returning a profit. But what is a ‘vested’ interest and what a ‘public’ interest position is often not self-evident; those who face financial ruin from environmentalist causes would presumably see themselves as representing a public interest, and Wood’s desire to protect his investment in those causes as a vested interest.

The most disobeyed legislation on the Commonwealth statute books?

For the past couple of days, The Age has been going hard on the failure of a Liberal Party ‘associated entity’, Business First, to file its required disclosure forms. It was the lead story yesterday, and still on page one this morning.

The purpose of these laws is to reveal the identities of financial supporters of political parties. While Business First is undoubtedly in technical breach of the law, what The Age isn’t telling you is that it had no donors large enough to require disclosure. If they had followed the law, Business First’s AEC form would, like the vast majority of forms submitted to the AEC, have received no attention at all because it contains nothing of any interest.

The Commonwealth Electoral Act is probably the most disobeyed piece of legislation on the Commonwealth statute books. While this is mostly people avoiding their legal obligation to turn up to the polling booths, there is also widespread non-compliance with the paperwork required to be a political entity or a donor above the threshold. Read the rest of this entry »

A president and a VC

Two events to promote:

At lunchtime Thursday, Czech President Vaclav Klaus will give a Deakin lecture on the future of personal and economic freedom, at Melbourne University at lunchtime. For details email [email protected]

And on Thursday evening at Federation Square in Melbourne, Oxford VC Andrew Hamilton will speak at a Grattan Institute event on how to create a world class university. You can book here.

Does anyone want to replace me?

The ad for my University of Melbourne job is here.

And the ad for the Policy editor job is here.

Is an arts degree a good financial investment? #2

Earlier in the month I looked at median weekly income for arts graduates, all graduates, and people with certificate III/IV qualifications, as reported in the 2006 census (note the various data caveats in the first post). I found that arts graduates had similar income profiles to certificate III/IV holders.

The figure below looks at males with income around the 75th percentile for their qualification in 2006, and tells a different story. In their 20s, earnings are fairly similar between the three groups (in the rather crude way I have had to do this, the ‘all graduates’ aged 25-29 just missed out on the next income bracket, and if the test had been ‘all non-arts graduates’ may have made it).

By their 30s, arts graduates in this part of the income distribution are clearly pulling away from the certificate III/IV people. But they are not gaining on all graduates. Indeed, the gap is likely to be larger than shown at the median, because graduates at the 75th percentile are ticking the highest census income category of $2,000 a week or more. We can’t tell from this data source how much they are earning, other than that it must be over $500 a week more than an arts graduate in the same relative position.

Should government issue advertising be regulated?

Last week I gave a presentation to an electoral law workshop on the campaign finance law applying to ‘third parties’. My basic thesis was that the rules introduced in NSW and Queensland (discussed in my recent paper and this submission) are heavily biased against third parties, and in favour of political parties and the government of the day. In NSW and Queensland, third parties have much lower donations and expenditure caps than political parties. If the ALP submission to the current parliamentary review of campaign finance is a guide, the government will push for a similar regime federally.

Another area in which the law is biased against third parties is government advertising, such as the carbon tax ads launched at the weekend by the federal government. The federal rules have the following provisions: Read the rest of this entry »