Archive for June, 2011

Complicated opinion on refugees

The latest Lowy Poll finds the usual hard-to-interpret results on refugees.

The idea of a queue clearly resonates, as 88% of Lowy’s respondents agreed with the proposition that “unauthorised asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat are jumping the queue and getting in ahead of other asylum seekers wanting to come to Australia”. On the other hand, 43% agreed that “unauthorised asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat are often fleeing war and conflict and Australia should give them a chance to set up a new life in a safe country”.

Lawyers have been prominent in the pro-refugee cause, and the way they look at the world may not always have helped politically. How many times have we heard the argument that Australia’s treatment of refugees breaches our “international obligations”? Only 32% of Lowy’s respondents agreed that “ïnternational treaty obligations mean Australia has to accept refugees regardless of how they arrive here”.

By far the most powerful pro-refugee material I have seen was the SBS series Go Back to Where You Came From, which screened last week. Politically, stories are far more powerful than treaties.

(click on picture for more refugee polls) Read the rest of this entry »

Why are political mixed marriages rare?

According to the 2010 Australian Election Study, only about 20% of the population are very strong supporters of the party they say they usually support. So political identity doesn’t seem that important for most people. Yet the same survey included a question on the party identification of the respondent’s spouse, and found that most couples share political allegiances (I included the Greens, but with only 72 married Greens in the sample this is less reliable than the other results).

There was also a question on spouse religion, and for the big religious groups that have many respondents – Catholics and Anglicans – 47% of the former and 56% of the latter have spouses from other religions or no religion.

So even though shared religious beliefs would seem more central to harmonious life as a couple, it seems that shared political beliefs are more common.

I haven’t done more work on the AES sample to explore further, but my first hypothesis would be that despite claims that the traditional sociological bases of the major parties have been breaking down, social background and social circumstances are still the fundamental shapers of political allegiances. And because people tend to marry people who are sociologically like themselves, they end up with shared partisan preferences.

Dubious ideas submitted to the base funding review, part 4

For some people at universities, their public funding level isn’t just about the money. It is sending a coded message.

The Council of Australian Law Deans submission to the base funding review seems to take this view. Along with business students, law students get the lowest subsidy levels – just $1,800 a year, while student contributions are more than $9,000. And that $1,800 is saying something.

First, it is apparently saying something to legal academics.

It dampens the aspirations of law schools to harness the natural idealism of many beginning law students and to educate them not only for their own career but also for altruistic ends.

Why this might be so remains mysterious. And in what may be an unfortunate consequence of cut-and-paste submission writing, it is contradicted in the next paragraph:

To enhance a broader perspective, law schools today are consciously embracing a more critical perspective and a more deliberate ethos of law reform, rather than merely teaching the law as it is.

Whether this makes for better legal education is another matter, but for this post sufficient to say that it disposes of the first argument.

But even if academics aren’t picking up the message, perhaps students are: Read the rest of this entry »

Is not-for-profit higher education more profitable than for-profit higher education?

Lawrence Cram argues that Australian universities use large surpluses from undergraduate teaching to support research. A similar argument was made in the US last week, in a Cato paper by Vance Fried (really). Fried thinks that the real costs per American undergraduate are between $5,000 and $9,000 a year, quite similar to Cram’s estimate for Australia. He thinks that not-for-profit unis in the US are more profitable than the for-profits, presumably as the former can use their brands to charge higher fees.

Australia’s largest for-profit higher education provider, the Navitas group, is a listed company so their annual report provides some insight into their operations. Indeed, it provides more interesting material than university annual reports. About 30% of Navitas’s revenue from its university programs divisions is earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBIDTA). For a commerce course in 2010 they charged international students about $18,000 a year, and local students $15,400. Presuming similar margins this implies per student underlying costs of between $10,800 and $12,600 per student.

However, they are also paying hefty royalties to universities – typically, Navitas feeder colleges are located on university campuses, and teach the same subjects as the first-year courses at that university, though with smaller classes. The annual report says they paid $131 million to university and consortia partners in 2010, 23% of their total revenues. I’m not sure how much this represents genuine costs for the university (does Navitas pay for the buildings?) and how much of it is essentially a rent they can extract by offering articulation for Navitas graduates. Read the rest of this entry »

The TEQSA mistake

The Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency legislation passed through the Senate yesterday, and is expected to receive Coalition backing in the House of Representatives. As I seem to be the only person on the public record opposed to TEQSA, for later I-told-you-so purposes here’s a summary of my objections:

(1) It takes higher education standards into the realm of partisan politics. ‘Standards’ on getting a licence to operate as a higher education provider, course accreditation, and general ‘teaching and learning’ will all now be set by one individual, the federal minister. There are processes to ensure the minister largely acts on expert advice, but he/she will appoint the experts, and ultimately I don’t think he/she has to follow the advice.

The current minister insists that he will respect academic freedom, and I don’t disbelieve him. But it is a bit like the Liberals backing the idea of a national curriculum when in government, and then professing to be appalled when Labor later appoints its mates to write it. The problem is creating such a power in the first place. I set out a couple of the scenarios in this Age article.

(2) There is too much centralisation. Even if the experts could set their standards without the minister’s approval, this would still be a problem. Standards are contestable – I wrote another Age article pointing out that draft standards released to date contain some dubious requirements. Read the rest of this entry »

Why aren’t graduates more satisfied with their jobs?

The paper on over-skilling also reports various forms of job satisfaction by qualification level. Counter-intuitively, though many people do a university degree to get a better job, they are less likely to score highly (9 or 10 on a 10 point scale) on most dimensions of job satisfaction than people with other qualifications.

Even on pay, where objectively graduates earn much more on average than people with other qualifications levels, graduates do not have the greatest levels of high satisfaction.



Are graduate jobs not so good after all? Or do graduates’ expectations increase in ways that the real world can rarely match? The options are not mutually exclusive, but I was reminded of Michael Dockery’s research showing that happiness decreases as people move from school/uni into the workforce. For people who are academically inclined, maybe many are never again so well matched with their circumstances as when they are studying.

Over-education vs over-skilling

As regular readers know, I have long been interested in graduate over-education – graduates who have jobs that typically require lesser qualifications. Using ABS definitions of jobs that normally require university education or equivalent experience, about three-quarters of graduates are appropriately matched with their jobs and about a quarter are over-educated.

However the significance of this has always been open to interpretation, given that some degrees are not taken for vocational reasons, some people may be happy with their jobs, or the situation could be temporary. And we would always expect some level of mismatch so it is hard to know what the benchmark figure for ‘too high’ should be.

A recent study by Kostas Mavromaras and colleagues, using HILDA data, looks at this issue in more depth. It uses a different definition of over-education, that the person has more education than the modal level of education in their job. Among full-time employees, they find 13% over-education among graduates – about half the ABS figure (though to what extent this is due to excluding part-timers, and what extent due to classifying FT jobs differently, I can’t say). Read the rest of this entry »

Finding a cheaper way of delivering higher education

In a sign perhaps that the higher education sector is worn out from seemingly endless reviews, the base funding review received only 161 submissions compared to 353 for the Bradley review.

I’m yet to read more than a fraction of the latest batch (though I think I am safe in predicting that ‘gimme money’ will be the dominant message), but there is at least one interesting submission – from Lawrence Cram, a Deputy VC at ANU, though for reasons that will become apparent the submission is personal rather than institutional.

What Cram does is apply econometric analysis to the expenditure of universities, along with their teaching outputs (as measured by completions) and research outputs (as measured by publications). I will have to wait on people expert in econometrics to judge the value of Cram’s model.

Cram’s finding is that expenditure per completion is around $26,600 and expenditure per publication of $226,600. Figure 2 in Cram’s paper indicates that these represent improved efficiency since 1996. This is plausible, given casualisation of staff and increased class sizes on the teaching side, and the pressures of publish or perish on the research side. Read the rest of this entry »

The SMH’s obsession with people paying for education

What on earth was the SMH doing in reprinting this Guardian diatribe by Terry Eagleton against AC Grayling’s new humanities college, featuring star academics and an £18,000 a year price tag?

Eagleton has himself in such a state about it that he’s throwing every insult he can think of, without worrying too much whether they cohere smoothly. The college is condemned both for being disgustingly elitist and for overcharging for knowledge that could be acquired for the price of a cheap paperback:

Who would pay £18,000 a year to listen to this outdated Victorian rationalism when they could buy themselves a second-hand copy of John Stuart Mill?

Many newspapers have odd obsessions, and the SMH‘s odd obsession is with people paying for education. Though presumably many of its eastern suburbs and north shore readership would never dream of sending their kids to a government school, the SMH leaps on any opportunity to present private schools in a negative light. Private schools are wasteful status competition, in decline (that turned out to be wishful thinking), responsible for white flight, etc. etc. It was one of the most persistent critics of full-fee undergraduate places at Australian universities.

But using scarce opinion page space to condemn a small college 24 hours flying time away seems to take this obsession to ridiculous lengths.

The real academic freedom issue

The government proposes amending the higher education funding legislation to include this provision:

A higher education provider that is a *Table A provider or a *Table B provider must have a policy that upholds free intellectual inquiry in relation to learning, teaching and research. (emphasis added)

This is a curious provision. For a start, it is quite similar to provisions in the draft higher education provider guidlines which will apply to all higher education providers, not just those receiving Commonwealth research funding (tables A and B). It’s more explicit about how these principles will be implemented – a policy of unspecified content as opposed to perhaps just a practice – but doesn’t seem to add much.

But what’s ‘learning’ doing there? The Labor ministers responsible for universities issued a media release today complaining about among other things Coalition talk about extending academic freedom to students, a follow-up to their Senate inquiry into biased left-wing academics. But it seems to me that it is Labor that is opening up the issue of academic freedom for students in the way that it has phrased this provision. Teaching and research is what academics do, but learning is what students do. Read the rest of this entry »