Debunking a higher education myth debunking

There were two higher education research papers reported today. Most publicity went to Bob Birrell and Virginia Rapson’s Clearing the Myths Away: Higher Education’s Place in Meeting Workforce Demands, which Birrell summarises here. According to Birrell, attacking the ‘myth’ that too much attention has been placed on higher education and too little on trades:

Between 1996-97 and 2005-06, overall employment increased by 20 per cent but the number of professionals, associate professionals and managers grew at nearly double this rate. By 2005-06, 38 per cent of all employed were in one of these three occupational groups.

To meet this demand, however, there has only been a marginal increase in university commencements by domestic students over the past decade. The Federal Government has maintained an effective cap on the number of university places for domestic students since it came to office.

Certainly, employment growth in the occupations traditionally targeted by graduates has been strong. But what Birrell and Rapson never mention is the actual number of people completing university qualifications. In virtually every year, these numbers exceed, usually by a large margin, net job creation in the relevant occupations. Sure, there are more vacancies than the annual increase figure would indicate due to retirements, women going on maternity leave, people moving overseas, etc. But not enough to stop us having a large ‘reserve’ graduate workforce, of about 400,000 people with degrees working in occupations that are highly unlikely to require them such as clerical and sales (you can work it out from this ABS report).

What we have in Australia is not a general shortage of graduates, but shortages in particular fields. This in turn is a failing of the quota system – a topic that I am sure anyone who has read me regularly is by now thoroughly bored with. Though in recent years, as Birrell and Rapson acknowledge, the government has been busy creating new university places in areas of workforce shortage, there is at least a 3 year lead time, and in some disciplines (like medicine) much more, before these students enter the professional workforce. The policy failing of the second half of the 1990s wasn’t too few university students overall, it was not letting the system adjust to meet the demands placed on it.

Birrell and Rapson also say that ‘many’ potential students with modest academic records ‘are likely to have been discouraged from attending university by the HECS debt they will accumulate…’. This paper by Chris Ryan and Buly Cardak, reported on here today, certainly shows that there is a strong relationship between ENTER score and university participation. But it’s very hard to show that the prospect of a HECS debt has negative consequences. Many people, for instance, claim that low SES students are more debt averse than students from more affluent families. But this paper shows that for a given ENTER score low SES and high SES school leavers have nearly identical rates of university participation. Though potential students with modest academic records cannot be expected to know statistics on university progress or employment outcomes, perhaps they intuitively understand that they are likely to not do as well at their university studies as their peers with stronger academic records, and risk ending up in jobs that are little better than those they could get straight out of school?

Is Kevin Rudd trying to wedge the Liberals?

It is no secret that the modern Liberal Party is – insofar as it can be characterised in ideological terms (always an important caveat, since few people’s views map neatly onto the organising ‘isms’ used by intellectuals) – an alliance of liberalism and conservativism. Interestingly, this is often an alliance within individuals as well as between individuals. There are social conservatives who hold essentially liberal (ie, pro-market) views on economic matters. There are social liberals who hold essentially conservative views on economic matters (ie, in favour of the old protectionist system). The Prime Minister has often discussed the liberal-conservative alliance, such as in this April 2006 speech:

The Liberal Party of Australia is the custodian of two traditions in Australian politics. It is the custodian of the classic liberal tradition, but it is also the custodian of the conservative tradition in Australian politics. You have frequently heard me use the expression

Why has Sheik Hilali had such a roasting?

Sheik Hilali’s media roasting provides a fascinating insight into contemporary Australian cultural politics. It’s pretty clear that there is a widespread view that Muslim attitudes on women – and particularly Arab Muslim attitudes – are very unsatisfactory. But it’s hard to say that in public. When someone like Marcus Kapitza decides that he’s tired of the behaviour toward women of young Lebanese men at Cronulla Beach and blames ‘Lebs’ for the problem this will get him labelled a racist. As was said in this blog’s comment this week about his case:


Australia’s suprisingly secure workers, part 2

Last month I pointed out that subjective job security, that is how likely people think they are to keep their jobs over the next twelve months, was at its highest level since surveys began (I expanded on this for ABC Radio’s Counterpoint last Monday).

With the release this morning of new labour market mobility data we can see that, on this at least, subjective and objective measure are moving in the same direction. The proportion of workers experiencing involuntary job loss is certainly the lowest since 1988, and quite possibly the lowest since records began, on 6% of people who worked during the year. If we take out those who were in temporary or seasonal jobs or had to quit due to ill health or injury, the retrenchment rate was 2.2%. In the first job mobility survey, back in 1972 before the 1970s economic crisis took hold, it was 2.7%, and it reached 6.4% during 1992.

Though objective and subjective measures of job security are moving in the same direction, there is a big gap between them. For example, if we average the Morgan job security survey results for the relevant years, about 17% of workers thought they had a chance of unemployment, though only 6% actually did lose their jobs. Using HILDA data (pdf, p.82) the Melbourne Institute has calculated that the correlation between a respondent’s own estimate of job loss and actual job loss was just .15. While this was a better predictor than anything else, people significantly over-estimate their chances of losing their job. There are a lot of people worrying about an event that won’t happen to them.

This is not to say that all is well in the labour market. Compared to the early 1970s, more men of working age have avoided being sacked by not holding any job at all during the year. But if you do have a job, the strong economy makes employment more secure than at any recent time.

Will the minimum wage decision help the government?

The industrial relations scare campaign isn’t going so well. Not only are jobs being created at a surprisingly fast rate, but now the Australian Fair Pay Commission has delivered a pay increase for minimum wage workers that nearly equalled what was, presumably, the union ambit claim. ACTU Secretary Greg Combet is describing it as a

a slap in the face for the government and the business community, which had wanted a smaller increase.

It’s certainly bad news for business, which must pay the higher rates, and perhaps some unemployed people who will be priced out of the labour market. But politically it is good news for the government, in the face of persistently negative polling on their reforms

As I noted in several Catallaxy posts, public opinion on the IR reforms has been remarkably stable – people made up their minds very early on, and nothing either side said seems to have produced any real net change. The interesting question now is whether as information contradicting union/ALP scare campaigns mounts it will start to reduce the proportion of voters opposing the reforms.

Can someone who abuses ‘Lebs’ not be a racist?

Yesterday, Marcus Kapitza lost an appeal against a jail sentence for his part in the Cronulla riots. What seemed to have landed him in most trouble was this:

Kapitza threw punches at two Middle Eastern youths on the day of the riot, and was also at the Cronulla railway station when two other youths travelling on a train were set upon by a mob. Kapitza was hitting his hands against the windows of the train, shouting “f*** off, f*** off Lebs, f*** the Lebs”, which encouraged those carrying out the attack inside the train, Judge Peter Berman said.

The SMH version of the story also rather coyly tells us that on the day he was wearing a singlet with a “slogan that insulted Mohammed”, but in less Muslim Melbourne The Age tells us what it actually said, that according to Kapitza “Mohammed was a camel raping faggot”.

Curiously, one thing that concerns Kapitza about the media coverage of his words and actions is that:

“It has portrayed me as a racist, which I am not,” he told the court.

Perhaps, as several commenters think about Gary Anderton, Kapitza is just saying this in an attempt to salvage what little is left of the reputation of a person the judge said was “otherwise a man of good character”. But it depends what you mean by “racist”. There is a tendency to think of racists as people with a generalised dislike of the “Other”, as our friends in the Arts faculty would say. But the survey evidence suggests that specific likes and dislikes without any overarching theory of ethnic differences are more common – prejudices rather than “racism”, with its implications of a doctrine like liberalism, socialism, or even “anti-racism”. Kapitza, like many of the other Cronulla rioters, seems to have been angry at a “few things some members of the Lebanese community have said over the years”. The Australian way of life was under attack, he told the court, and he chose the slogan as an “eye for an eye”.

Recently I read Ian Buruma’s new book, Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance. As well as discussing van Gogh’s murder at the hands of an a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist, he writes about Pim Fortuyn, also murdered for his political beliefs (though not by an Islamist). Fortuyn was a populist opponent of Muslim immigration, but became angry when he was accused of being racist. His opposition to Islam began when Muslim youths broke the windows and threatened the clientele of a gay bar he frequented – even though he was a sociology professor, like Kapitza he was motivated by specific circumstances, not general theories. But he, like Kapitza, drew the conclusion that a way of life – the Dutch way of tolerance – was under threat.

I’m glad Kapitza has gone to jail; that we settle our disputes peacefully is fundamental to the “Australian way of life”. But I think it is plausible that he is not a racist in any general sense; that his views are inferences from the behavior of specific groups of people, rather than judging specific groups based on general theories. That Kapitza does not like ‘Lebs’ doesn’t tell us anything useful about what he thinks of any other ethnic group.

Same conclusion, different spin

Backlash: Bracks risks losing 16 seats, Poll finds ALP is out of touch
– headline in print edition of the Melbourne Herald Sun, 24 October 2006

Libs face crushing loss at poll: One in eight to vote for Greens
– headline in print edition of the Melbourne Age, 24 October 2006

Two rather different interpretations of poll results showing that we are on track to the expected Victorian election outcome – the return of the Bracks government with a slightly lower share of the vote. The actual two-party preferred estimates are from ACNielsen in The Age, Labor 56, Liberal-National (though there is not actually a Coalition agreement) 44; and from Galaxy in the Herald Sun Labor 52, Liberal-National 48.

The major difference between the two polls is their assessment of the minor party and independent vote, 12% according to Galaxy and 18% according to ACNielsen. Galaxy puts the Greens at 7% and ACNielsen at nearly double that, 13%. Because Greens preference to Labor, the ALP ends up with a larger 2-party preferred vote in the ACNielsen poll.

Galaxy puts its margin of error at +/-3.5%, and ACNielsen at +/-3%. They are both going to need all their margins of error, Galaxy up, ACNielsen down, to reconcile the different estimates of the Green vote.

Update: Newspoll’s Victorian election poll is in The Australian today (a small amount of information is online). It’s midway between Galaxy and ACNeilsen on the 2-party preferred, 54-46. It puts the Greens at 7%, the same as Galaxy, and the same as the Morgan Poll in September. Yesterday in comments, Pollwatcher thought that Galaxy’s low result might have been because they did not read out the Greens as an option, but Newspoll seems to have done so by asking ‘which one of the following would you vote for?’ with the Greens appearing in their table with all other minor parties in ‘other’. However the actual Green vote in 2002 was about mid-way between yesterday’s polls, on 9.7%. I’d guess that actual Green support is closer to 7%, but if they campaign more effectively than other minor parties and independents they will pick some of the stray uncommitted and protest voters.

A truly civil society

In our recent discussion of Robert Putnam’s ethnic diversity and distrust research, Eva Cox had this to say:

I suspect also the lack of bridging social capital in such diverse areas may also be fired by too much neo-liberal emphasis on markets that place risk on individuals, encourages self interest and undermines social cohesion.

This is an argument Eva has been pushing for more than a decade, with most publicity surrounding her 1995 Boyer Lectures ‘A Truly Civil Society’, later published as a book of the same name, which I gave a rather harsh review in the March 1996 issue of Quadrant.

Eva took a contrary position in the social capital and trust debate of the time. When most other writers were emphasising the bottom-up nature of these social phenomena, Eva took the top-down view – they would be increased by more state activity rather than less. One chapter is even called ‘The Companionable State’. People acting freely without the state could be bad. ‘Competing marketers in head-on battle destroy society’, she told us, to no doubt much nodding of heads in Glebe and Fitzroy.

There are many of us who feel pessimistic about the future, who feel society is gradually coming apart at the seams. The idea of the social is losing ground to the concepts of competition, and the money markets are replacing governments. The social aspects of humanity have somehow disappeared…

A decade on Eva’s pessimism seems distinctly misplaced. In a chapter she wrote for Robert Putnam’s Democracies in Flux she reported on the standard interpersonal trust question for 1983 and 1995, in which 46% and 39% respectively thought that most people can be trusted. In 2005 it was up to 53%. There is other evidence suggesting that our social capital is improving. The Giving Australia research project reported that volunteering and donations had both increased since the 1990s.

Other aspects of Eva’s theories have also been discredited. ‘Telling us not to trust government spills over into not trusting our neighbours or even ourselves’, she said. Yet it now seems that to the extent that there is spillover in trust between spheres of life it goes the other way, that trust at a local level leads to trust in government. She thought that ‘ever longer hours of paid work’ put social capital at risk, but HILDA has shown that people who work long hours tend to be better connected than those who work shorter hours, and those with the most time – the unemployed – suffer worst from social isolation.

As I pointed out back in 1996, Eva does not understand markets – that they are fundamentally an other-person orientated institution, which promote co-operation with customers and within firms. And to the extent that markets do allow self-interest space, there is little reason to believe that this encourages people to act self-interestedly in spheres of life where that is not appropriate. Even having babies and raising children, the most generous thing most people will ever do, is on the rise again.

One change over the last decade makes me hesitate to declare complete victory. This is that, in line with the broad ideological thrust of a A Truly Civil Society, the Howard government has been on a huge spending spree. Interestingly, much of that has been directed through the institutions of civil society, in family benefits and the outsourcing of services (Eva would presumably prefer direct government control). I think this trend has worrying long-term implications in the politicisation and bureaucratisation of non-government institutions. But perhaps in some way it may have contributed to the good social results we have seen since the 1995 Boyer lectures.

Once a racist, always a racist?

The Age thinks that Gary Anderton, the 24 year old Liberal candidate for the safe Labor seat of Lyndhurst in the upcoming Victorian election, should lose his preselection. Some blog remarks a couple of years ago, as reported on the newspaper’s front page yesterday (it was a very slow news day – that some of the thousands of letters written to the Immigration Minister on particular cases came from Alan Jones was the laughable lead story), are the problem. I reproduce the worst of it here:

Mr Anderton tells in an entry called “Anglo-Saxon Doctor Please” of going to the GP and being seen by “an Indian doctor, of all things, that absolutely stunk and obviously received a full fee degree. In other words, (he had) no idea.”
After asking the clinic for an “Australian doctor, that could speak English and was youngish (hopefully female)”, he was treated by an “Asain (sic), male, 50s, and had a speech lingo (sic) as good as Melbourne Lord Mayor (John) So”. …

“I could go back to genetics