Archive for May, 2009

Why so much emphasis on research in universities?

One of the great assets of the United States is its hugely diverse higher education system. While all Australia’s public universities are (at least in theory) large and comprehensive research universities, their US equivalents enrol only 25-30% of American higher education students. But increasingly US institutions with little research history are starting to become research active, and this NBER paper seeks to explain why. As summarised by Inside Higher Education these are the possible reasons (more detail in the link):

* Students gravitate toward research orientations.
* Research makes professors better teachers.
* Research-oriented professors help sort students by being poor teachers.
* Research quality has become a proxy for teaching quality.
* Altruism. “Knowledge is a classic public good”
* Faculty members like to do research.
* Envy and prestige.

I hadn’t heard of the very cynical third suggestion before – that poor teaching by researchers confuses weaker students and causes them to fail or drop out, helping the ‘screening’ effect of higher education, in which what is learnt is not actually of any great value but an ability to get through university signals to employers that graduates have desirable attributes of intelligence, persistence, etc. While this may be an effect of increased research orientation, I very much doubt it is an explanation for it, and the NBER paper offers no evidence for it.
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Corporate welfare on the rise

As the Productivity Commission’s annual Trade and Assistance review revealed yesterday, corporate welfare is on the increase. After increasing at an annual rate of around 6% until mid-decade, it increased by 14% in 2006-07 and 23% in 2007-08.

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But this is nothing compared to what is on the way. As The Age reported:

The Rudd Government’s spending plans for research and development, the car industry and the farm sector would add another $20 billion in coming years, it says. But the emissions trading scheme would put all that in the shade. The commission says free permits to emission-intensive firms alone would cost taxpayers $6.5 billion in 2011-12 under the original plans — now postponed for two years due to the global financial crisis.

The chapter called ‘Recent developments in industry assistance’ (pdf) runs to 35 pages, discussing over 40 developments – not all of them bad from an anti-corporate welfare perspective, but most of them. That’s up from 23 pages in the last full year of the Howard government.

What does the public think prisons are for?

The Australian Institute of Criminology has a new report out on public perceptions of crime levels and the performance of courts, prisons and police.

One curious result in the AIC survey is that while there is strong majority support for tougher sentencing (though it has trended down since the 1980s), most people say that they have ‘not very much confidence’ or no confidence in the prison system as a way of rehabilitating prisoners, of punishing them, of deterring future offending, or of teaching skills to prisoners. So perhaps the only thing prisons do effectively is keep habitual offenders off the streets for a while.

Except for protecting defendants’ rights, there is not much confidence in the court system either. Only the barest majority (51.5%) agrees with the proposition that the courts ‘deal with matters fairly’, and certainly not promptly, with only 22% of people believing that the courts deal with matters quickly. I wonder if this has implications for the bill/charter of rights debate. It’s not just that the public might not believe that the courts would do a good job in balancing rights. It’s that the courts could do without further possible causes of diminished public standing.

Assorted links

1. This week is the 100th anniversary of the ‘fusion’ of the Protectionists and Free Traders, establishing a forerunner of the Liberal Party and the party system we still have today. It was effectively the end of economic liberalism for 60 years. Charles Richardson has a very good account of what happened in the current issue of Policy.

2. A SMH opinion piece by former WA Premier Geoff Gallop on the merits of federalism. Against the centralisers, he says

Political philosophy and a serious discussion of checks and balances, creativity and innovation and accountability and control are sacrificed on the altar of “efficiency” and “uniformity”.

In well-timed evidence of the merits of federalism, Tasmania’s parliament is going to debate euthanasia legalisation.

3. For Sydney readers not already bored of my views on higher education, I will be giving a seminar on the Gillard reforms at the CIS on 4 June.

A neurotic reading of happiness research

Despite the huge and on-going advances of women by most objective indicators, feminism retains a neurotic aspect, an over-anxiety that the gains are going to be reversed.

One manifestation of this anxiety is strong reactions against even empirically true statements about gender, lest they conceal some normative agenda by the author, or suggest arguments that ‘traditional values’ conservatives might later use. I scored this kind of reaction last month. But I was being provocative and cannot complain that I got a response. But what did Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers do to deserve this spray in the Guardian, dutifully reprinted over the weekend in the Guardian of the south, aka The Age?

The prompt for the Guardian attack on Stevenson and Wolfers was the National Bureau of Economic Research publication of their research on the declining relative happiness of women, especially in the United States. I blogged on an earlier version of this paper in 2007.

The Stevenson and Wolfers paper is in standard NBER style, full of sentences like ‘the ordered probit normalizes the underlying distribution of happiness to have a standard deviation of one, and hence this shift amounts to about one-eighth of the cross-sectional standard deviation of happiness.’
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The economics of graduate-entry courses

Last week the SMH reported that the University of Sydney was abolishing its undergraduate radiation therapy course in favour of a graduate course. The University’s explanation is that ‘the change was in line with a move towards graduate entry for many of its professional degrees.’

Since graduate-entry but initial professional entry degrees are relatively new in Australia we don’t have any strong evidence on their human capital economics. From a theoretical perspective, however, I would have thought there could be potential human capital benefits for occupations likely to benefit from study in more than one field (eg managers, public servants and other policymakers, lawyers, teachers, academics), and possible financial reward for having broader knowledge and skills. In any case, at least at the upper levels of most of those occupations have high earnings, and so additional degrees for general interest and enjoyment are affordable.

However financial rewards from added degrees are less likely for occupations which require highly-specialised technical knowledge but little else in the way of university-level education. All the health professions except perhaps those related to mental health would seem to fit into this category. And except for medical practitioners and dentists, the health professions generally pay salaries that could easily represent low rates of returns on investment if initial education cost significantly more.
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The Monthly goes young

After last month’s editorial meltdown at The Monthly, I wondered who would volunteer to do the job.

Now we know – the very youthful Ben Naparstek, aged 23, has the job. Having googled him this morning (I was not the only one – I’d got as far as ‘Ben Nap..’ and google was already correctly suggesting that I wanted ‘Naparstek’) he’s done some good journalism about big-name intellectual and literary figures. Apart from doubts about whether someone so young will be able to stand up to Morry Schwartz and Robert Manne and win the respect of the many contributors old enough to be his parent or grandparent, he seems to have the right background for the job.

In any case, he’s clearly not lacking in confidence. I liked this part of the Weekend Australian’s version of the story:

He applied for the job when he was 18,” Mr Schwartz told The Weekend Australian yesterday.

“I said, ‘no you’re too young’. He said, ‘I’m not too young’ and I said, ‘yes you are’, and so I appointed Christian Ryan instead.

“Now it’s his turn. He starts Monday morning.

Update: Monday’s Australian says that Naparstek has been dubbed the ‘boy Manne’. There could be many variations on this theme: Manneservant, Manne Friday… but let’s give the guy a chance.

Do Australians move to study?

One characteristic of Australians is that in general they don’t like moving. In the UK hardly anyone studies in their hometown, they go somewhere else (as long as they can afford it). In the US the same thing happens, people who can afford college often go somewhere interstate or at least in a different city.

- commenter ‘M’ during the week.

Overall, Australians do move quite frequently. According to the census, nearly 40% had moved in the previous five years. According a recent ABS publication, half of Victorian 18-34 year olds have moved in the previous three years.

So is it true that Australians don’t move to study? Comparing enrolment figures for 18 and 19 year olds with census data on the same age groups of students living with their parents it suggests that 42% of teenage students are not living at home. Many of these moves are likely to be lifecycle or lifestyle moves, rather than moving to study at a particular university. But the overall figure is higher than the Australians-stay-at-home-to-study thesis would suggest.

DEST commencing student data suggests that those moving interstate might also be more numerous than commonly thought. Accross the country, 11% of 2007 commencing students were enrolled outside their state of permanent home residence (a trend too; it was 9% in 1997).
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What will stop Liberal demographic decline?

Recently commenter Robert asked about my views on Scott Steel’s demographic political analysis. Using 2007 polling data, Steel finds what several others – including me, Andrew Leigh, and Ian Watson – have found before: that the Coalition relies heavily on older voters.

While I agree with the broad thrust of Steel’s analysis, I have a slightly different way of looking at it. The 2007 polling results he reports are for me the combination of three different dynamics – long-term trends in party identification, medium-term trends in the issue cycle which affect what those with weak or no party affiliation want out of the political system (which I have discussed before), and shorter-term factors that may affect particular polls and elections but don’t necessarily in themselves affect long-term perceptions of parties (for examples, pick any newspaper from any day at random).

On party ID, as can be seen below the trends are very much against the Coalition, making elections increasingly difficult to win because base support is too low. On the other hand, the arguments that the Greens would emerge as the new third party don’t seem likely either. Even in the most indoctrinated and fashion-prone age group, the 18-30s, the Coalition has nearly three times the base support of the Greens. Labor’s security as the natural party of government comes not from an increase in its base, which apart from the Labor-leaning forty-somethings is consistent across age groups, but from its two major rivals hating each other more than they hate Labor.

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Question: ‘Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as Liberal, Labor, National, or what?’, in the Australian Election Survey 2007 n=1,711
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The German neoliberals

As discussed last month, the term ‘neoliberal’ – though undergoing a shift and then disintegration of meaning along the way – seems to have started in Germany in the middle decades of the 20th century, been taken up in Chile in the 1960s by ‘neoliberal’ supporters, been taken over in subsequent decades by Latin American critics of markets, adopted by US academics from the Latin Americans, before arriving via them in Australia in the 1990s, with the term squeezing out ‘economic rationalism’ in the 2000s and being given mass media profile by Kevin Rudd’s Monthly essay.

My CIS colleague Oliver Hartwich, who being German is able to read the original ‘neoliberal’ material, has a paper out today on their ideas. Here’s the op-ed version for those preferring a summary.