The Bradley report’s OECD cringe

The Bradley report’s authors display the OECD cringe, an attitude that OECD statistics set the benchmarks Australia should follow, regardless of whether those statistics are meaningful or whether other countries get better outcomes. It is the modern-day version of the old cultural cringe, that whatever was English set the standard Australia should follow.

Some examples:

* concern about a drop in Australia’s tertiary attainment levels relative to other countries (at pages 9, 18), ‘notwithstanding classification issues’. In fact, those classification issues are serious. And as I have pointed out, the same OECD publication that reports these attainment levels also shows that high levels of attainment correlate with high levels of graduates in low-skill jobs (though the extent of these correlations will be lower than reported, due to the data issues).

* increases in public funding to be in the ‘top group of the OECD’ (6). Yet there is no evidence that public funding is better than private funding, and the OECD does not claim that there is.

* public funding actually already quite high, but other countries increased spending more quickly than Australia between 1995 and 2005 (146). So they must be right then!

* though slightly better than the OECD average on completion rates, we should do better (19). The conclusion is probably right, but we don’t need guesstimate OECD statistics to work it out, we need our own.

* Australia ranks 23rd among 31 OECD countries ‘in terms of students’ ability to finance their education costs as measured by the ratio of tuition and living costs to available individual funding’ (57). I’m not sure how the OECD did these calculations, but Australian costs are 40% of ‘individual funding’, so well within the bounds of feasibility. The OECD report they cite points out that low tuition fees do ‘not necessarily imply facilitated access to tertiary education’.

* international students are a higher proportion of enrolments in Australia than anywere else in the OECD (89); but compared to the OECD we should have more international research students (99-100).

* Australian fees should not go up because they are already among the highest in the world (1, 141, 152, 163). But surely from the point of view of students fees are high or low compared to the expected benefits, not compared to what people in other countries pay? Why should we match their under-investment?

Of course it is possible to learn from other countries. But there are traps in making other OECD countries the benchmark.

Under the OECD cringe we mistake cultural and political differences for Australia policy shortcomings. Scandinavia’s high public spending and consequent high tax rates would not be acceptable in Australia. And Scandinavians would find our user pays difficult to support. But the two systems have contributed to similar levels of educational attainment.

The cringe obscures the possibility that we can learn from the mistakes of other countries as well as their successes. Few countries seem satisfied with their higher education sectors, least of all the European countries that heavily influence OECD averages. Why benchmark against systems that are not regarded in their own countries as major successes? Ironically, the Australian policy initiative that makes us look bad on the OECD cringe funding measures, using HECS to reduce the fiscal burden of expanding higher education, is the one aspect of Australian higher education policy that is internationally highly-regarded and copied.

The Bradley committee do have one bold proposal which is rare in the OECD, the voucher scheme. It is a pity this policy adventurousness was not more common in its report.

25 Responses to “The Bradley report’s OECD cringe

  • 1
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 29th, 2008 19:44

    It’s worse than that – they specifically have a European OECD cringe. I’ve a great quote in the office that I intend to use in my Bradley write-up that goes (paraphrasing) ‘east Europeans and Asians fly over European universities on their way to US universities’.

    It’s also quite remarkable how they point out that Australia used to be a policy innovator but now call for evidence of success for any policy proposals. So they want us to now be followers.

  • 2
    conrad
    December 30th, 2008 05:42

    It’s not entirely useless — its just that they started in the wrong place. They should have started with how the skills of graduates compare across countries, which surely must be the most important measure — It’s just that no-one collects these (I doubt most universities want to find out). A lot of this reminds me of all the useless quality assurance bureaucracy there is (which the report suggests yet more of). Its almost all to do with inputs, processes, and making sure there are paper trails to the moon and back. Alternatively, the only output measures are happiness surveys with poor validity filled in by a small proportion of students at most universities.

  • 3
    Rafe Champion
    December 30th, 2008 07:53

    Conrad makes a good point, probably one of the points in the original post – don’t use the average as the benchmark, look for best practice. But be very careful how you measure it!

    Henry Ergas made a relevant argument in the Dec Quadrant, regarding federalism in Australia, let the states each do their own thing to some extent and find what works best instead imposing a uniform system nationwide.

  • 4
    conrad
    December 30th, 2008 08:25

    I haven’t read the article — but I agree that a uniform system nationwide is really bad news (it’s also disturbing how readily Australians accepted that one Stalinesque body could do a better job than a number of state governments — especially at the high school level where you really do have decent outcome measures). I’ve also no idea why a group of bureaucrats in Canberra think they can do a better job than the state bodies. In fact, even if they were better at developing stuff, they still wouldn’t get the best outcomes, since having different things going on in different states works essentially like a lot of little experiments where you can see the outcomes. Thus, it allows you to choose the best option of many when the best option is not apriori obvious, which in education is very common (just compare maths in NSW vs Queensland — there’s a massive difference). This huge benefit seems to have been completely ignored. I can just imagine that we’ll all end up with a rather average system, but since there are no decent comparisons (which state vs. state are — country vs. country generally isn’t), this will be hard to identify. Yet another problems is that a single system is also sure to lead to politics in policy, so kids will be forced to do crap like Civics, learn weird versions of history etc., and I’m sure with one governing body we’ll be told this is all essential knowledge for them.

  • 5
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 30th, 2008 10:26

    The Bradley Report wants to create a ‘Uniwatch’ regulatory system – but we’ve already seen FuelWatch and GroceryWatch flop.

  • 6
    Rafe Champion
    December 30th, 2008 12:11

    Unfortunately the Ergas article is not on line at the new Quadrant site. But check out the site anyway!

  • 7
    John Humphreys
    December 30th, 2008 12:58

    I think we need a “watch-watch” program to check up on all of these “X-watch” programs. Or maybe a “Rudd-watch”? :)

  • 8
    conrad
    December 30th, 2008 15:45

    “The Bradley Report wants to create a ‘Uniwatch’ regulatory system”

    Yeah — that’s pretty weird isn’t it? It’s as if AUQA and the likes don’t waste enough of everyone’s time already.

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    December 30th, 2008 16:16

    Actually, I broadly agree with the analysis in the quality control section of the report. The lack of 3rd party scrutiny is an issue. I am suspicious of a national regulator (while understanding why national education operators want one) but whether from state regulators, professional bodies, or private quality and accreditation agencies a system of 3rd party scrutiny would protect students as consumers from the problems of an over-aggregated industry, in which student selection, curriculum, assessment and credentialing is all done by the same people, with often no real check on whether it is any good until students reach the workplace.

  • 10
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 30th, 2008 16:24

    hmmm, it’s called Stockholme syndrome. Andrew you can’t say things like this and then get offended when I call you ‘communist’. :)

    Maybe in the Arts faculty, but in Business there are external assessments all the time from professional associations and also external quality agencies such as the AAACB and EQUIS etc. I would shuy AUQA down. I imagine its the same in Engineering and Medicine too.

  • 11
    Andrew Norton
    December 30th, 2008 17:35

    Sinc – I agree, likely to be redundant where external accreditation already occurs. Indeed, business schools often seek international accreditation to enhance their credibility.

    There is nothing remotely ‘communist’ about this; indeed it is probably only because this industry has been a cosy closed shop that it has not emerged as a private initiative on a more widespread basis, as competing providers seek to establish their credibility.

  • 12
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 30th, 2008 17:58

    The super-regulator, UniWatch, will stiffle innovation and competition. It specifically will be tightening up barriers to entry. So I can’t see how it’ll be doing anything to resolve the ‘cosy closed shop’ that is higher ed.

  • 13
    conrad
    December 30th, 2008 18:15

    I’m in Science/Arts and we have two main external regulators, neither of which actually focus on anything meaningful as far as I can tell — they basically create paper trails for very little benefit. Indeed, only the professional body actually bothered to say anything useful at all, but it was pretty clear that they cared far more about the postgraduate program (which you need to do to join them), than the undergraduate.
    .
    I also agree with SD on this. The regulators are so prescriptive, specifying things down to the numbers of staff at certain levels we must have, certain subjects we must run etc. it basically means you have to run your program in a very specific way (and some of the things they specify are crazy). Even if people could get the same skill set another way (and people do), the association refuses to recognize it. Hence you end up with one program being run essentially the same way everywhere that has it, and the only way to become qualified is to do that program, and no others. Of course, they’re basically trying to set themselves up as an AMA style mafia (quite possible in my area), which is yet another problem with these regulators.

  • 14
    Andrew Norton
    December 30th, 2008 18:44

    Conrad – Though I know of another professional body that worked the other way, admitting people who had completed certain subjects whether or not they had completed the degree.

  • 15
    Andrew Norton
    December 30th, 2008 18:47

    Sinc – There is already a near-insurmountable barrier to setting up an Australian university (foreign unis can operate reasonably freely if they offer their home-country degrees), and the Bradley proposal would make that worse. But it’s possible that things might improve in the non-university sector where overlapping state and federal processes create heavy burdens.

  • 16
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 30th, 2008 19:00

    it’s possible that things might improve

    This is always a theoretical possibility, but I’m not confident. The non-uni higher ed regulations are even more complex than university. In a previous life as head of school I used to dread the TAFE sector discussions and meetings. OTTE used to email all sorts of things almost every day.

  • 17
    davidp
    December 30th, 2008 19:33

    Is the case a substantial share of the accreditation agencies tend to be in and for Europe (where my perception is that there is less effective competition between institutions for staff or students than in the US)? Is it the case that they are used less in the US (particularly at the higher end) where there is more competition?

    If these suggestions are correct (though would be interested to learn if they are not) would just allowing greater competition (for students and staff) between institutions go someway to dealing with this issue (and do foreign student movements (in a similar way imports do in some industries) effectively do this?)

  • 18
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 31st, 2008 06:06

    Yes. Allowing greater competition would improve outcomes for students. The Bradley report recommendation for funding to follow students is a good one IMHO. I agree with Andrew on the price cap issue. Universities already compete for staff, but are somewhat limited bcause they do not really compete for students (except on some limited margins). In an open slather competition situation institutions could compete on both quality and price. That is what (largely) happens at the moment in the international student market – UniWatch, however, will act to inhibit quality competition in the mistaken belief that a race to the bottom will occur. (one of the authors to the report tld me that students cannot determine quality etc. i.e. there is an asymmetric information problem. Unfortunately there is always an asymmetric information problem, but nobody has yet convinced me that the problem is so great that the education market fails – indeed looking at the US we know that it does not fail). At the same time the Rudd government is acting to reduce domestic price competition and the Bradley Report recommends price caps so domestic price competiton is eliminated. This, IMO, will create greater pressures for marginal institutions to exit the market.

    This, I think, is the part of the smoking gun. University elites have been trying the reverse the Dawkins reorms for a long time. They can’t come out and simply legislate to do so without being exposed. So they now try to rig the market to achieve the same goal. I have no problem if a defacto binary system evolved out of competition, but I do have a problem if a binary system evolved out of a rigged market. UniWatch will exist the rig the market.

    On the other issue; I am familiar with the Equis (European) and AAACB (US) accreditation systems. It is my perception that the US one is more rigorous than the European version. But as Davidp indicates the US system is more competitive and is better than the European system.

  • 19
    Andrew Norton
    December 31st, 2008 06:22

    “and the Bradley Report recommends price caps so domestic price competiton is eliminated”

    Though this is one the internal inconsistencies in the report. At several points price control for currently deregulated fees is listed as a job for the new national regulator. They have clearly listened to Bruce Chapman’s ideas on this (critiqued here).

    However, in the substantive section on this not only do they propose leaving current unregulated fees as they are, but raise the possibility of public unis – the only institutions with the power to exploit their brands – taking some of their current regulated courses into the unregulated market.

  • 20
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 31st, 2008 07:08

    Yes. I can’t work out the logic of the all-in or all-out approach.

  • 21
    Andrew Norton
    December 31st, 2008 07:13

    I think their attempts to create consistency in one area – because currently private institutions can mix undergraduate subsidised and full-fee students but public universities cannot – led to inconsistency in another.

  • 22
    conrad
    December 31st, 2008 10:25

    “but nobody has yet convinced me that the problem is so great that the education market fails”
    .
    It doesn’t fail, but it’s easy to see how ignorant students are. For example, in my area, I can rank how good the courses are in Victoria into 3 main quality bands based on fairly reasonable knowledge [Monash (Clayton), Melbourne, RMIT, Swinburne], [Deakin, Monash (Caulfield), Ballarat (??), ACU??], [La Trobe, VUT]. I could also tell you differences even within bands (students that don’t like impersonal uber sized courses won’t like Monash, for example). As you can see, there is no real relationship between students perceptions, Enter scores, and my bands. No Year 12 student will tell you RMIT has a reasonable course, for example, but it is (you can come up with your own for Business if you like and see how well they match student perceptions — my bet is that you they won’t match well either). One of the surprising things was that in the international market, the students I have talked to are far better informed than the locals (in IT, most could rank the universities and also rank them in areas of IT).
    .
    “but are somewhat limited bcause they do not really compete for students (except on some limited margins).”
    .
    I’m not sure what it’s like in Business, but most of Arts and Science certainly does. I’ll bet that RMIT takes as many students as it can get into these courses, as most universities in Australia do.
    .
    “I have no problem if a defacto binary system evolved out of competition”
    .
    I find this really hard to imagine — and it would be very foolish for the government to rig it like you suggest they might. There are good people even at the worst universities, and people work at different places for many reasons. If people were forced to move, many (generally the top people you don’t want to lose) would find it simpler to simply move overseas than, say, even across the big cities (If you lived in the SE suburbs of Melbourne, for example, the traveling time to La Trobe would be hours per day), let alone the regional campuses, which would be the first ones to lose out. Even getting to Melbourne is a pain from some areas thanks to the Museum->Melbourne gridlock. The other problems is that Australian universities are so anachronistic in terms of hiring and so on, if the government was foolish enough to rig the system, many good people would simply have nowhere to go. Hopefully the ERA will fix that to some extent.

  • 23
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 31st, 2008 11:12

    Conrad, I think we’re in broad agreement on those points.

    One of the surprising things was that in the international market, the students I have talked to are far better informed than the locals

    This doesn’t surprise me at all. Universities compete for international students on price and quality grounds. These students have an incentive to inform themselves, and they do. Domestic students don’t face that same incentive structure and so they don’t.* But the whole asymmetric information argument assumes that students are incapable of informing themselves and making a decision that best suits themselves. Incidently it does also assumes that an anonymous bureaucrat who has no knowledge of the student can make that very decision.

    *For domestic students the incentive is to go to the best university that’ll have them, or to go where their mates go, or the uni closest to home and so on.

    The economics of undergraduate education is mass market – so everyone takes as many as they can into particular courses. But Unis do still compete for some students (Melbourne, for example, will try to get the highest VCE score person, or the top ten and so on).

    I agree that it is very foolish to rig the market – but this is Australian higher education policy we’re talking about here.

  • 24
    Mitch
    December 31st, 2008 12:20

    “For domestic students the incentive is to go to the best university that’ll have them, or to go where their mates go, or the uni closest to home and so on.

    The economics of undergraduate education is mass market”

    I don’t see this as a bad thing. Mass marketing generally leads to simplification, and if that means, for instance, that a bachelor becomes quicker, cheaper, and (arguably good or bad) easier to get then that just means I can get a Postgraduate degree sooner.

  • 25
    Sinclair Davidson
    December 31st, 2008 13:36

    I’m not suggesting this is a ‘bad’ thing.