Archive for March, 2011

Dubious ideas submitted to the higher education funding review, part 1

With submissions to the higher education base funding review due on Thursday, some organisations are starting to put their ideas out into the media. I thought I would start an occasional series on dubious proposals made to the review (though I suppose this is just a more specific version of what this blog has been about since it started).

Behind the AFR‘s paywall is a story about the Australian Technology Network’s submission. They are suggesting that graduates who work in areas of skills shortage get a discount on their HELP debt repayments.

But generally where there are skills shortages the market deals with financial incentives: the pay goes up. And why should taxpayers rather than employers fork out when staff get more expensive?

The only example given is a rather sexist one, that female engineers should be given an added incentive to stay in the profession. The Beyond Graduation survey, of graduates three years out, found that engineering graduates were already earning good money (median salary $75,000) and had the second highest rate of income growth since their first job (63%). If there is a problem with women in engineering, I doubt it is money. A female engineering graduate isn’t likely to earn more doing something else. Read the rest of this entry »

Another OECD factoid

Regular readers will know that I am no fan of the OECD cringe, the belief that OECD averages set a standard that Australia should follow.

But uncritical use of OECD statistics is made even worse by misleading use of OECD statistics. That’s what ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young – normally one of the better VCs in his public statements – does in this opinion piece in today’s Age.

Young says:

OECD figures show that public spending on tertiary education in Australia is about 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product. Clearly, this will rise as the system is expanded in coming years. However, the spending compares poorly with Denmark at 1.6 per cent, Sweden at 1.4 per cent, Norway at 1.2 per cent and the Netherlands at 1.1 per cent.

On average, public investment in tertiary education in these countries is twice that of Australia.

It is no surprise that these countries have been able to develop high value-added export industries, despite high production costs and high exchange rates. These countries also have high social cohesion.

But Professor Young doesn’t explain why public funding of higher education leads to positive results that private funding does not. So we should look at private spending as well.

And if we average the total tertiary education spending as a proportion of GDP in the OECD’s figures in these countries what number do we get? An average of 1.5%, exactly the same as Australia’s total.

As a proportion of GDP the Nordic countries do have more public spending on higher education than Australia. But this is a factoid devoid of policy significance.

Free speech and hate speech

Katharine Gelber’s new book Speech Matters: Getting Free Speech Right is for the most part a useful summary of speech laws in Australia, and the issues surrounding them. The key chapters are on using or destroying the flag to make political statements, the speech aspects of anti-terrorist laws, hate speech, demonstrations, political art, and corporate use of litigation against critics.

The few policy disagreements I have with Gelber come I think from our different underlying philosophical positions. Her commitment to free speech is more qualified than mine by social democratic ideas. For example, she supports laws against ‘hate speech’, which I oppose. Her position on this comes from her ideas about an ‘inclusive speech culture’:

[hate speech]’s very purpose is to exclude its targets from participating in the broader deliberative processes required for democracy to happen by rendering them unworthy of participation and limiting the likelihood of others recognising them as legitimate participants in speech.

But Gelber doesn’t show that this is the effect of ‘hate speech’. Hateful comments might intimidate, but they are also spurs to action – most of the ‘victim’ groups in Australian society are vocal in their own defence, and have plenty of other defenders. And as she acknowledges in her book, anti-vilification laws have the effect of giving cranks publicity. Read the rest of this entry »

The increasing pass rate for international students

With renewed debate about ‘soft marking’ (Club Troppo here, my original post here, Catallaxy here), I revisited a post from last year about pass rates for international students.

Back then, I noted that international student pass rates had increased since 2006 after a long period of stability. In previous analysis I had taken stable pass rates as prima facie evidence that there probably wasn’t widespread or systemic increases in soft marking of fee-paying students as unis had become more reliant on their fees. But after 2006 that seemed to be changing.

We now have another year of data (appendix 4), which shows that domestic and international student pass rates are converging. The figures are for commencing undergraduate students, and the figures represent units passed/ (units passed + units failed + units withdrawn).


Read the rest of this entry »

Some tough ‘soft marking’

Claims of soft marking are common, but evidence is rare. This makes UNSW academic Gigi Foster’s paper on business students at UTS and the University of South Australia particularly interesting. She has the academic results and other details for domestic and international students, as well as other information about student background and classes taken.

There is certainly no sign of the grade inflation common in American universities. The average mark for domestic students is 62%, and for internationals 57%. A figure showing the distribution of marks shows very few at the high levels and many fails, particularly for international students.

Foster concludes that there are signs of soft marking because though international students get lower grades overall, when there is a high concentration of international students in classes their marks improve. She thinks that this is consistent with grading to the curve, of ensuring that there is a similar distribution of marks between classes. When classes are mostly internationals, the better students get the benefit of a statistical adjustment to their marks.

In The Australian‘s report of Foster’s paper, not everyone is backing this conclusion: Read the rest of this entry »

No trend in marriage opinion

Yesterday’s Essential Research result on same-sex marriage is looking like it might be a rogue poll, with today’s Nielsen survey finding no change in opinion over the same time period:

A blip in the same-sex marriage opinion trend?

Today’s Essential Research survey reports a drop in support for gay marriage since November 2010, from 53% to 49%. Those against are up from 36% to 40%.

The margin of error for a poll like this is about 3% in either direction, so it is possible that there is no real change. But this does seem to be the first poll for several years that has found minority support for same-sex marriage. While the demographics of opinion on this subject leave little doubt that there is an emerging clear majority view in support of same-sex marriage, the campaign for it may experience a few short term ups and downs.

Should marriage be privatised?

I’ve often disagreed with social democrats about privatisation, but it is not often that I do so to oppose a privatisation proposed by a social democrat. But that’s my response to an opinion piece in yesterday’s Weekend Australian suggesting privatisation of marriage, written by Tim Soutphommasane.

Tim’s argument seems similar to that of Tamara Metz in her book Untying the Knot: Marriage, the State and the Case for their Divorce, which I reviewed in Policy late last year.

As opposed to the libertarian view that marriage should be done via contract law, Tim and Metz see the need for specific legal relationships applying to domestic relationships. I largely agree with this part of the argument; people should not be able to contract their way out of all the obligations attached to partnerships and especially parenting. With contract, too many people will not make them, or will make contracts that are one-sided or fail to foresee future issues. ‘Off the shelf’ legal arrangements can deal with these problems. Read the rest of this entry »

Why no Coalition leader can back a carbon price

Essential Research has more polling today on the complex politics of climate change. There is still a small plurality – 47% versus 43% – in favour of taking action on climate change soon, and only 19% who say that we don’t need to take any action at all. That latter figure is consistent with the 18% Newspoll found late last year who said they don’t believe in climate change at all. So the hardcore sceptics are still significantly outnumbered.

But some of those who say we should act now lose their nerve when it comes to any actual plan to do something now.

Read the rest of this entry »

This minister isn’t a threat to academic freedom. But what about the next one?

In Senate estimates hearings last week (they only put the transcript up today, large pdf):

Senator MASON [shadow minister for universities] —Andrew Norton wrote an interesting article the other day opposing the establishment of a national regulator. I often agree with Andrew, but can I—
Senator Chris Evans [minister for tertiary education] —I am writing a response so I will send it to you.
Senator MASON—Very good, Minister.

My original article is here, the minister’s response is here.

Evans’ key response to my article is this passage: Read the rest of this entry »