Our public moralists and storytellers

Listmania has spread to the Australian Literary Review, the new literary periodical being given away as an insert once a month in The Australian. They’ve given us the third list of top public intellectuals in the last couple of years, following on from the SMH list and the Education Age list.

The ALR list (also here, for when Rupert takes the original report into pay-to-view) and the SMH list used similar methodologies to make their selections, with the ALR asking 200 (unnamed) ‘scholars’ for suggestions, and the SMH a wider but smaller (100) group of people with some connection to the intellectual world. Inevitably there are some choices (or rankings) that seem a bit odd: how can Marcia Langton rank above Geoffrey Blainey? But overall most of the people mentioned are credible candidates for a list of public intellectuals, and many names appear on all three lists.

Despite the diverse interests and views of the people who made it to these lists, one striking thing is that they are dominated by storytellers and moralists. They are people who tell stories about some aspect of Australian and sometimes international life or history (eg on the latest list Blainey, Inga Clendinnen, Helen Garner, Robert Hughes) and / or moralisers (eg Robert Manne, Peter Singer, Clive Hamilton, Tim Flannery, David Marr).

Social scientists, people who use statistics to explain and advise Australia, are conspicuously absent. There are no economists on the ALR list (Hamilton has an economics PhD, but that’s not the basis of his public prominence). Politicians are also rare: Bob Brown and Carmen Lawrence, moralists both, and Barry Jones, a classic case of a good memory being confused with intellectual talent. Just two people on this list have any power beyond their own words to shape the world around them: Noel Pearson and one of my bosses, Glyn Davis.

The shortage of people with real power is not so surprising. There is little time for reflective writing if you have pressing day-to-day responsibilities. It is the omission of social scientists that I am curious about. Though they probably have more influence on policy than most of the 40 people on this list, their work is not easily accessible to the general public, even when it appears, as it often does, in newspapers. The human brain is surprisingly bad at remembering numbers, and struggles to recall or even understand the analytical arguments that flow from them. Narrative is our more natural mode of understanding, and people respond better to thinkers who use it to convey their message. Similarly, right and wrong in the moral sense is something that people sense and respond to from a very early age, while right and wrong in a mathematical sense is hard to acquire and rarely provides conclusions that resonate. As Stalin is reported to have said, in one of his rare moments of insight, ‘one death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic’.

For aspiring public intellectuals, there are clear messages in all this: go for stories over statistics, and anecdotes over analysis.

Our broken university subsidy system

One of Brendan Nelson’s few achievements in higher education was to extend the FEE-HELP scheme, which offers income-contingent loans to full-fee paying higher education students of any education provider that meets objective criteria. This replaced the previous PELS scheme, which was available only to postgraduates, and only at public universities and a small number of private institutions that were favourites of the government.

So far more than 40 new institutions have been approved, and lending is increasing quickly from a small base. However, the private higher education industry still largely reflects its circumstances of the last few decades. Since it was difficult for private universities and private higher education providers to compete directly against the free or very cheap public universities, most of them are in niche areas that don’t interest public universities – religious training institutions or institutions with a religious perspective, specialised professional training institutions, natural medicine colleges, and sundry others.

There is an expectation around the sector that this won’t last. As fees have increased at public institutions the price gap has narrowed substantially, and with FEE-HELP students no longer need worry about having to pay up-front. There has been some streamlining of accreditation rules that should make it easier for foreign institutions to enter the Australian market, and we are already seeing some activity there. The conditions exist for public universities to face competition in their core teaching activities.

This has bastions of conservatism such as the National Tertiary Education Union worried. As reported in the SMH this morning:

The National Tertiary Education Union said universities would respond to the competition by slashing unprofitable courses and concentrate on those that made money through full-fee paying students. The University of Sydney had already done so by ending undergraduate nursing, said the union’s policy and research co-ordinator, Andrew Nette.

Public universities do rely on complex cross-subsidies from those disciplines and students that generate surpluses to those that do not. But the problem here is not competition, it is the absurd system of subsidy and price control.

In a well-designed system, the government would support those disciplines that the market would probably under-supply, such as nursing, where the costs of the course are high relative to the subsequent labour market returns. But because the subsidies provided by the Commonwealth are only marginally better than numbers picked out of the air, universities have trouble financing many of the courses subject to ‘market failure’ from government-authorised or supplied revenues.

To fix this ‘market failure’, universities have turned to…the market. They use the profits from full-fee students in courses leading to lucrative professions to support Commonwealth-supported students in other fields. Yet HECS students in those same disciplines do receive Commonwealth support. So the market pays for things the goverment should pay for, and the government pays for things the market should pay for.

It has dawned on both the Minister and her Shadow that something is deeply wrong here – though neither yet have credible alternatives. But at least they don’t think, like the NTEU, that the problem is competition.