Archive for February, 2007

Why do parents send their kids to private schools?

Yesterday’s release of the annual ABS school statistics, showing another gain in market share by private schools, prompted Harry Clarke to comment:

As argued in an earlier post these trends could reflect a move to quality or a move by aspirational parents to give their kids a ‘leg up’.

No doubt this is part of it, but the research on why parents choose private schools gives reason to heavily qualify this kind of analysis. The most obvious point to make about private schools is the vast majority are associated with a religion, and unsurprisingly parents who think religion is important are more likely than those who do not to choose a private school. A 1990s analysis from the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that ‘emphasis on religion’ was one of the few attributes in which private school parents differed significantly from government school parents in the characteristics of the school they regarded as important. Religion was the main reason my parents sent me to a private school (it didn’t end up making me religious, but that’s something for another post).

Another big issue is discipline. In a 2004 ACNielsen/SMH survey ‘better discipline’ was the single-most cited reason (31%) for moving to a private school, with ‘better education’ second on 25%. In the AIFS survey though all parents rated ‘level of discipline’ as important, they differed on their satisfaction with the school on that count, with government-school parents rating their satisfaction as 6.77 on a nine point scale, with Catholic-school parents on 7.84 and independent-school parents on 8.07. Parents were also more satisfied with the ‘control of violence, drugs and alcohol’ at private than government schools.

Because the public-private school debate tends to focus on the extremes – a few dozen top private schools on one side catering to the wealthiest and most ambitious families, and schools catering to the most under-privileged on the other – it tends to miss the more routine school choices made by most parents, who have concerns going well beyond academic excellence and the numbers of students going on to the top universities.

It’s hard to know whether there is much of a ‘trend’ in parents’ underlying preference for private education. Given all the negative publicity surrounding government schools – ironically often added to by the public school lobby which, having chosen politics over markets, must use media publicity for school problems to pressure politicians into giving them more money – it would not be surprising if more parents did want to make the shift. But it is also the case that growing affluence and less policy discrimination against private schools than in the past means that school choice is more affordable than it once was, which would drive up private school enrolments even without any change in opinion on government schools.

Taxpayers ripped off again

Victorian universities are predictably complaining about their failure to secure many of the handouts from the federal government’s Voluntary Student Unionism Transition Fund.

But the people who really should be complaining, yet again, are Australia’s taxpayers. They must pay the $80 million used to swing National Party support behind the government’s plan to abolish the ‘compulsory’ student amenities fee at universities. But which is the more obnoxious compulsory fee, taxes or fees paid by people who choose to attend university? The policy was another example of Brendan Nelson’s considerable ability to suppress cognitive dissonance and implement policies that contradicted his rhetoric.

The politics of water #2

Curiously, while an ACNielsen poll 10 days ago had Labor leading as the best party to handle water resources by 48% to 34%, today’s Newspoll reported in The Australian on which party would best handle water planning has the parties almost even, with the Liberals on 33% and Labor on 34%. The Liberal Newspoll number is almost the same as ACNielsen’s, while Labor’s is signficantly lower.

I doubt it is the slight change in wording, ‘water resources’ versus ‘water planning’. Unfortunately the ACNielsen poll details were not well reported in The Age, but I’d guess the difference is less due to the question than how the pollsters drew answers from their respondents.

Newspoll has a big 20% classed as ‘uncommitted’ – which given the limited record of either party federally on this issue is a reasonable response. Newspoll doesn’t usually give an ‘uncommitted’ option when reading out questions, but as they recorded both ‘uncommitted’ and ‘none’ they don’t seem to have been pushing people to give a party even if they seemed unsure. I’m not sure of the wording of ACNielsen’s question, but possibly they asked a version of the ‘which party are you leaning towards’ question of the uncommitted respondents. For the various reasons given in my last post on this – Labor being in fashion, Labor better on the related issue of the environment – the uncommitteds could have gone for Labor over the Coalition.

Even so, there is still quite a big difference between the polls, consistent with the public not really having made its mind up on this issue. This will be a relief for the Coalition, because on its first appearance in the Newspoll survey ‘water planning’ has gone straight to the top, being cited as a very important issue by 82% of respondents. It’s the first time since the first half of 2003 that the top issue is not health and Medicare.

Continuing blog problems

The complaints continue to flow about the blog’s unreliability – though it is there most of the time (or at least most times I check) it is regularly either very slow or won’t load at all.

I have complained to Yahoo about it twice but cannot get any useful advice.

This URL often works better than

And often if you have a url to a particular post it will work when will not.

I will change hosts next week when I am less busy, but my reason for not doing so before has been uncertainty about where the problem is. is a domain I bought from Planet Domain, and when I set up my blog I re-directed it to Yahoo. I am ignorant of technical matters, but it seems intuitively plausible that the problem could be at the Planet Domain rather than Yahoo end. As it is a big hassle to change hosts I have been reluctant to do so without strong grounds for believing that it will actually fix the problem.

Why is the for-profit higher education sector small?

In a post on the for-profit Phoenix University, John Quiggin argues that:

The unimpressive performance of Phoenix and Edison, along with the complete failure of other for-profit initiatives and the absence of any significant success stories in the for-profit sector over many centuries and many different countries and institutional environments suggests that the for-profit model is fundamentally defective as a way of providing education.

Why is this so? The obvious reason is that educational institutions must build up reputations over decades, since the consequences of cutting corners take decades to emerge. This makes no sense in terms of profit maximization and individual incentives, so it requires a professional/academic ethos which at least in part, overrides narrow forms of individual rationality. Such an ethos cannot survive in a for-profit firm.

I don’t know the Edison story, but Phoenix itself has been pretty successful – 300,000 students and a fairly good stock market performance, though the index of listed for-profits published annually by the Chronicle of Higher Education shows the sector trending down since its 2004 peak, but still well above where it was when it started in 2000. Phoenix says its graduation rate is 50-60%, which is probably comparable to the similar client group (mature age students) in Australia, for whom the

GetUp!’s entrepreneurial success

Back in August 2005, when writing about the launch of political spam outfit GetUp!, I wrote that:

[GetUp!] want to focus on issues that have been discussed in exhausting and exhaustive detail for years, and which have pre-existing interest groups and issue movements that keep them in the public eye.

In an odd sort of way, contemporary soft leftists are both obsessed with politics and unpolitical at the same time. That is, their political involvement seems as much about showing what kinds of people they are (caring , concerned etc) as making a difference. The plausibility of a political strategy is less important than being involved.

Whether or not Get Up! founders Jeremy Heimans and David Madden turn out to be effective political activists, by setting up an organisation that taps into demand for low-effort political statement making they may prove to be astute entrepreneurs. (emphasis added)

If News Ltd newspaper reports today are correct, this prediction was spot on, with Heimans and Madden pocketing more than a quarter of the $539,000 GetUp! raised in the last financial year. Unlike the Herald-Sun, I’m not at all critical of this – they were (they have left the organisation) entrepreneurs in the market for political expression, and if they have helped people feel like they are contributing to freeing David Hicks, saving the planet etc they have done their job. Some people seek ‘retail therapy’, others political therapy – and entrepreneurs are rewarded for providing what people want.

Why are private schools getting so many kids into uni?

Today’s Age report showing that private schools dominate entry to Melbourne and Monash universities set off another round of excuse-making from the defenders of public education.

Richard Teese, a leftist education academic at Melbourne University, told The Age that:

Students in public schools came from much wider social backgrounds and the economic cost of further study was a major disincentive.

‘Wider’ here is presumably a euphemism for ‘lower’, which is true on average, but the Cardak and Ryan research showed that for a given ENTER score high and lower SES groups proceed to university at the same rate. It seems it is the marks, not the money.

This requires further rationalisations to explain why students at private schools get better marks:

independent schools were better resourced and more focused on university education

They generally are more focused on university education, and on average spend more per student – $11,208 per student in government schools and $13,049 in independent schools. But money alone can’t explain it – the Catholic schools spend significantly less per student, $8,817 but still, as The Age article notes, send a disproportionate number on to university.

Another Melbourne University academic, Richard James, said that

the middle class had lost confidence in government schools and moved its children to private schools, largely due to funding cuts and closures under the Kennett government. (emphasis added)

Read the rest of this entry »

When is it OK to make unsubstantiated assertions?

In today’s Higher Education Supplement Paul Frijters and Tony Beatton have a go at this article from a couple of weeks ago by Andrew Leigh for his ‘various platitudes about the advantages of diversity’. Frijters and Beatton say (recycling what Frijters said on Andrew’s blog):

one of the biggest dangers for a scientist is to get sucked into simply stating things that go along with what is commonly believed but are not really self-evident at all. It’s very easy to make statements that go with the grain without applying the same amount of thought given to statements that go against the grain.

I’m all for scepticism. One of my most useful lessons in social science came when, as an undergraduate in the late 1980s, I set out to write a critique of a chapter on the ‘New Right’ in book by one of my teachers. I decided to fact check every statement made, and was very surprised to find that quite a few things were simply wrong and many claims were not supported by the evidence I could find. Academics as much as any of us are least sceptical when confirming their existing prejudices for or against an idea, and as a result most vulnerable to critics hoping to take down their arguments.

But it’s hard to see what Andrew has done wrong here. These were the ‘platitudes’ he offered, numbered by me with my commentary in italics:
Read the rest of this entry »

Why is Labor the preferred party on water resources?

Today’s ACNielsen poll in the Fairfax broadsheets has a ‘best party to handle’ issues question I don’t think I have seen before, and which could be just as worrying to the Coalition as the 58%-42% two-party preferred result. This was which party is best to handle water resources, which Labor led 48% to 34%. That’s well under the 40% who said in 2004 that they tend to identify with the Liberals, and close to the Coalition’s core support of around one-third of voters.

Purely on an issue basis, it’s hard to see why Labor has a strong lead on this. Water has little history as a federal issue, and not much more (at least in recent times) as a state issue, so there are not strong party stereotypes to fall back on, as there are on issues such as health, education, and tax. But if you had to think about it in the context of the governments who have been responsible for water, ie the state Labor governments, you’d have to say that their long-term performance (except perhaps in WA) is in the poor to mediocre range. In Victoria, the Bracks government’s strategy seems to be limited to killing off gardens and shorter showers. When Newspoll asked Victorians during last year’s election which party would better handle water management, Labor was nevertheless ahead, but only 38% to 32%.

As Malcolm Turnbull theatrically told Parliament last week, thanks to severe domestic water restrictions bucket back is afflicting pensioners as they carry water from their showers to their gardens. You don’t have to be raving right-winger to think we can do much better than this policywise (some ideas today from Professor Q). And whatever the merits of the PM’s $10 billion plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, it had been more prominently in the news than any suggestions from the Labor side.

It’s hard to tell without repeat polling, but this result could just be the flow on from the enthusiasm surrounding Kevin Rudd – that voters don’t actually have real views on which party federally would best handle water, but they are feeling positive toward Labor at the moment and so when asked they say ‘Labor’ rather than say nothing. Another possibility is that this is a case of issue association – that because water seems related to the environment, and Labor is way ahead on that (60% to 26%), Labor seems the more obvious answer to this question. Unless the drought breaks between now and the election, the Coalition had better hope this poll does not reflect solid opinion.


If you read this blog, you’ve known since November last year what Peter Costello told Parliament yesterday: that Kevin Rudd’s ‘Brutopia’ comes not from the late British conservative intellectual Michael Oakeshott, but from Donald Duck comics. In the Treasurer’s words:

When you ask where he [Rudd] draws his inspiration for his quack economic policy, you find that it comes from a Donald Duck magazine. …This is the evolutionary cycle of the Labor Party. We have moved from Mark Latham’s roosters to Kevin Rudd’s ducks.

The SMH took it one better, labelling Rudd’s views ‘quackonomics’ (in a play on Freakonomics), but they are still buying the Oakeshott line:

Labor’s spin doctors argued that the tactics showed the Government had failed to find any point of substance against Mr Rudd. Yet you can be sure this year he will resist the temptation to intellectualise his subject matter with clever terminology even if it was actually borrowed from British conservative Michael Oakeshott, rather than Donald Duck.

I’ll email the journalist today and ask him to get Labor to provide the exact source of this claimed Oakeshottian term.