A curriculum market

Julie Bishop’s speech on national curriculum is certainly attracting criticism, not just from Labor states protecting their power but also from former elite private school principal Judith Wheeldon, in today’s Weekend Australian .

The problem with this debate is that it is between two alternatives that are nearly as bad as each other: national centralised curriculum and state-based centralised curriculum. Each means (or would mean) that most parents have no effective choice and that the bureaucracies that create curriculum have weak incentives to be responsive to parents. Bishop complains that state curriculum setting has fallen into the hands of ‘ideologues’, but how much easier would that be if they only had to capture one bureaucracy rather than six, and disgruntled parents had to run a national rather than just a state campaign to protest?

The debate we should be having is not State versus Commonwealth curriculum, but centralised curriculum versus competitive curricula. Competitive curricula would bring us diversity as well as competition, reflecting the variety of student needs, aptitudes, and interests. We have the start of this in the International Baccalaureate program, already taught in a number of schools. It is too demanding for some students, but excellent for those planning to continue to university. This kind of innovation should be the model for the future.

Competitive curricula could get around the sole argument for national curriculum that has any merit, the difficulties faced by students moving interstate. Since there are clear economies of scale in creating curriculum materials, I expect that curriculum creators would sell their programs around the country, so families that move between states would be able to enrol their kids in a school teaching the same basic material as the school they left.

A market in curricula would fundamentally change the incentives facing curriculum creators. Parents could withdraw their kids from schools that offered dubious curriculum (because their children were semi-literate and numerate, because they were studying Big Brother instead of Shakespeare etc) without moving interstate. This would give schools an incentive to change curriculum providers, who would need to improve or go out of business.

There are three curriculum options – markets, federal, national. Julie Bishop is advocating the worst of the three, and the state governments the second worst. The best, alas, is not even on the table.

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.

What proportion of their education costs do uni students pay?

In a speech she gave yesterday, Education Minister Julie Bishop says:

Today for every $1 a student contributes to their education, the Australian Government contributes $3. Students pay 25% of the cost of their fees, the taxpayer picks up 75%.

Her predecessor was fond of that argument too, but repetition does not make it right. Insofar as a defence can be made of it, in 2004 for every $1 HECS charged to Commonwealth-subsidised students about $3 was spent by the Commonwealth, but on all university activities, including research. Money spent on researchers who never step foot inside a classroom is not a contribution to a students’ education, which the Minister’s statement specifies: ‘their education’, ‘their fees’. A government that insists on unbundling university finances when it comes to student unions cannot rebundle to suit a different argument. Moreoever, student contributions were increased in 2005, which will alter the relativities.

Since the Commonwealth now specifies its exact contribution per student and the exact maximum fee payable it is possible to work out the student contribution as a percentage of the total. The lowest percentage – 27.8% for nursing – is higher than the typical percentage claimed by the Minister, and the highest – law at 83.85% – is more than three times as high.

Using data I collated from the funding ‘agreements’ signed between the universities and the Commonwealth, I have calculated the likely weighted average student contribution for 2005 and after enrolments, ie taking into account that some courses are taken by more students than others. This figure is 44%. (‘Likely’, in that I am assuming that the courses taken by 2005 and after students, who mostly pay a 25% premium, closely resemble those taken by pre-2005 students).

However, the government argues that there is doubtful debt associated with HECS lending. Once we adjust for that, the average student contribution comes down to about 38%.

So the government is still picking up most of the cost, but not as large a share as it claims.

Quadrant at 50

Tonight in Sydney Quadrant is celebrating its 50th birthday. In The Australian this morning, Owen Harries and Tom Switzer offer high praise. Noting the now ‘mainstream’ nature of conservative ideas, they say that we should thank Quadrant for its part in this change:

Quadrant is the most successful and influential magazine of ideas in Australia’s history.

In Crikey, Charles Richardson is more critical. After noting its golden days as an anti-communist journal, he says:

Since then, and especially since the fall of communism, Quadrant has struggled to retain relevance. Harries and Switzer acknowledge that it “has had its ups and downs”, and mention “clashes of personalities”. But they fail to appreciate the basic dilemma that publications like Quadrant face.

Anti-communism depended on an alliance between conservatives and liberals: although philosophical enemies, they recognised that they faced a common threat, and could unite on a common program of defending western democracy. The conservative side was always the more prominent at Quadrant, but most of the time they were too busy with communism to turn their fire on the liberals.

In the last twenty years, things have changed. Communism and old-style socialism have mostly disappeared, leaving conservatives and liberals to face each other in the trenches. Quadrant has continued to produce some work of high quality, but the sort of liberals who would once have seen it as an ally in the greater struggle are now its main target.

Harries and Switzer seem oblivious to this. They see themselves as promoting “conservative ideas and those of classical liberalism”, without realising how deep the contradiction is between them.

I’m inclined to agree that Quadrant’s golden years are behind it, though this is as much due to changed technology as changed intellectual circumstances. Blogs and essays on the internet can attract much wider audiences than a $7.50 monthly magazine printed on newsprint and with terrible covers, depriving Quadrant (and other little magazines) of both writers and readers. I don’t know of anyone under 30 who reads Quadrant , so demography is very much against it in the long term.

But I disagree with Charles on the liberalism and conservatism issue. The Harries and Switzer piece does blur them more than it should, and Charles correctly notes that there are tensions between the two ideologies. But this is an opportunity for Quadrant rather than a problem. There is no need for it to be a house journal for one view or the other, and in practice it is one of the few places where in-depth liberal and conservative views can both be read.

For many on the right, this debate is as much a working out of their own inner tensions as a clash between rival tribes. If anything challenges liberal anti-paternalist views it is remote Indigenous communities, on which Tony Abbott wrote in the September issue. John Stone offered a characteristically blunt assessment of what he calls the ‘Muslim problem’, which is posing the largest intellectual and practical challenges for liberal tolerance in decades. The magazine has published many conservative views on what’s happening to the universities, but also Max Corden’s excellent liberal critique of higher education policy.

I doubt Quadrant will celebrate its 100th, but there is still a role for it.

Update: For us over 30s (actually, it’s probably mid-30s – the dividing line is likely to between those whose political views were shaped by the Cold War, ie born in the early 1970s or before, and those whose political views were formed after the collapse of European communism that began in late 1989) the IPA is also holding a Quadrant turns 50 function, on 19 October. Ken Minogue, whose lucid and insightful essays once graced the pages of Quadrant and its now-defunct upmarket English equivalent, Encounter, will also be there.

Student chronicles

Alice Garner’s The Student Chronicles, about her life at the University of Melbourne in the late 1980s and 1990s, shares a problem with self-published memoirs and family histories – if you know the people involved these stories of fairly ordinary and uneventful lives can be interesting in themselves; but if you don’t know them, you need some other reason to keep reading.

I don’t think Garner ever really finds a way to make her book compelling. Though her background is a little unusual – she is the daughter of writer Helen Garner, and enjoyed some success as an actor before starting her studies – for the most part at her time at the U of M was much like that of thousands of other identikit female Arts students. In one of the book’s few memorable phrases, she describes her early time as a student as enjoying a ‘warm bath of anonymity’. The book is one long bath of anonymity.

Who, for example, would have guessed that in a share house the guys don’t meet women’s standards of tidiness and cleanliness? Or that she was against the University’s decision to introduce full-fee undergraduate places, or opposed to VSU, or in favour of refugees?

Having had the same boyfriend (to whom she is now married) throughout her time at university, there isn’t even the novelistic drama the discovery and growth of love might have provided. Instead, we hear a bit about the love lives of various friends and housemates, which is even less interesting than the love life of an actress who is the daughter of a famous person.

Ross Gregory Douthat’s Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class is a much more successful student memoir. Though Douthat is a talented writer and has a better store of anecdotes than Garner (how could she beat going skinny dipping with William F. Buckley Jr?), he also knew that his own stories of roommates, student elections, studying and trying to get a girlfriend wouldn’t be enough in themselves. He solves this by locating his story in a much bigger story – that of Harvard itself and the ‘ruling class’ its students (despite all the efforts at ‘diversity’) largely come from and end up in.

Garner’s focus on her own experiences and feelings will perhaps appeal to fans of the chick lit genre. Mark Latham’s ‘metrosexual knobs and toss-bags’ might like it too. But most men who are not related to or friends with Alice Garner should spend their book budget on something else.