Labor’s unscientific plans to boost science

[This post was mostly lost in a server change, and has been restored from the National Library archive.]

I knew that sensible Labor higher education policy could not last. Today’s policy announcement on maths and science education contains another HECS remission initiative that could be worthwhile, by encouraging graduates with science or maths expertise to enter teaching. But another proposal is a waste of money:

Labor???s New Directions for Maths and Science Policy will:

* Reduce the HECS contribution for new maths and science students from the current annual student contribution rate of $7,118 to $3,998 from 1 January 2009.

What is the theory behind this? The press release (which is all we have) is rather vague, but there are two hints. The first is that:

Australia needs the best maths and science teachers in the world so that they can educate the next generation of Australians in the skills required to build our economy and our future prosperity.

At the moment, the funding system is not directly based on what course a student enrols in. It is based on how particular units of study are classified. This means that people studying teaching or education pay a lot more for units classified as ’science’ or ‘maths’ than they do for units classified as ‘education’ or for other disciplines such as the humanities in which a teaching student may enrol to build subject-specific expertise. At the margins, it is possible that this puts some teaching students off specialising in science.

But why does everyone studying maths or science need to get a discount? Lucrative health-related courses include units classified as ’science’, and ‘maths’ classified units can be included in a variety of courses. The people who go off and used sophisticated maths to play the financial markets will get this discount as much as the people headed off to teach at schools. At most, the cost should be reduced to those enrolled in teaching courses.

The second hint is that:

Investment in critical areas of expertise such as maths and science has stagnated while our economic competitors have surged ahead. Today only 0.4% of Australian university students graduate with maths and statistics qualifications, compared with an OECD average of 1%.

But this policy in itself will not create a single extra graduate in maths or science. As regular readers of this blog will know, the number of places isn’t set by student demand. It is set by the bureaucracy. And Labor’s policy makes no mention of creating any extra places.

Perhaps Labor is proposing a voucher system, with the hope that extra demand will translate into extra supply. Even then the policy is not likely to work, as there is already excess supply in science. Also, universities are at long last waking up the need to understand their costs, so Labor may need to send them a price signal as well as sending one to possible students.

A voucher system seems unlikely. So at most the policy can change who enrols in maths and science subjects, not how many enrol in maths and science subjects. As I noted in yesterday’s post, interests are the main driver of course choices. So if there is an effect from this policy change, it will be to shift demand away from other courses that draw on people with science or maths interests, such as the health-related courses or engineering. It’s hard to see that there is any value in doing that; these occupations have more serious workforce shortages than any science-related field. Indeed, only in secondary school science and maths teaching is there evidence of an under-supply of people with science backgrounds.

So this policy is not, as Labor claims, an ‘investment’ in ‘critical areas of expertise’. It will not provide a single extra dollar or a single extra student to science or maths. It will simply be a handout to people who are going to study those disciplines anyway.

Would a HECS remission incentive be effective?

As reported in this morning’s papers, Labor’s early childhood policy includes 50% HECS remissions for:

10,000 early childhood graduates working in areas of specific need, such as rural and regional areas, indigenous communities, and areas of socio-economic disadvantage.

This is a considerable improvement on previous Labor suggestions that HECS be cut across the board to attract students to particular disciplines. That policy is doomed to failure because students’ course preferences are driven by their interests, and not by money. The share of applications received by each discipline has generally been quite stable over time, despite the introduction of differential HECS in 1997 and widely varying salaries on completion. Also, people tend to discount the value of financial transactions in the future. An 18 year old isn’t going to be strongly influenced by a few thousand dollars they will have to repay when they are 30.

Though the current Labor policy does not provide large financial incentives – on their own figures only about $20 a week to begin with – it has the benefit of being received immediately on the desired behaviour occurring and does not require the student to alter their fundamental interests or career plans; just where they put their skills to use.

Indeed, the way it is framed may mean that is has a greater incentive effect than simply paying people working in these locations an extra $20 a week. A 50% remission sounds like more than (for example, I have not done the actual sums) a 3% wage increase. And loss aversion psychology may mean that people perceive avoiding a loss (debt repayment) as more valuable than the equivalent gain (a pay increase).

The main criticism of HECS remission schemes is that the incentives are effectively restricted to the least experienced workers, when dealing with the toughest cases would preferably be dealt with by workers who had been in the industry for a longer period of time. But given that the Commonwealth would be reluctant to get directly involved in paying early childhood staff, and this scheme may have incentive effects beyond its actual monetary value, as higher ed interventions go this seems to have more promise than most.

There, I have said something positive about an ALP education policy:)

What happens to the Liberal Party if it loses? (Part 2)

By the end of 2007, it is possible that the Liberal Party will be out of government throughout Australia. As I noted in part 1 of this post, this has led some people to forecast its demise as an organisation. Like political parties around the world, the long-term trend in Liberal membership is down. But unlike political parties in many other parts of the world, the major Australian political parties have retained large support bases, people who tell pollsters that they ‘generally think of themselves as’ Liberal, Labor, or whatever.

Quite surprisingly, given all that has occurred since, a larger proportion of the electorate generally thought of themselves as Liberals in 2004 than they had in 1967, the first time the question was asked and a year after the Coalition’s biggest ever share of the two-party preferred vote, at the 1966 federal election. 40% were Liberals in 1967, 41.5% in 2004. Because Country Party/National Party identifiers have shrunk from 7% to 3% of the electorate in that time the proportion of Coalition identifiers is down slightly, but the Liberal Party itself has held up very well (though fewer voters overall class themselves as ‘strongly’ preferring their party, with 29% of Liberals strong supporters in 1967 and 21% in 2004). Labor is down 5 percentage points, from 37% to 32%. There was a lot of talk in the 1990s about the rise of minor parties, but in reality the two major parties have proven to be highly durable.

Though Liberal-leaning voters cannot be taken for granted – more on that below – they are a good foundation on which to build towards a majority. While Liberal infighting may damage the party’s electoral prospects, the large Liberal support base shows why it is still an institution worth fighting over. Norman Abjorensen may be right that in theory there is scope for realignment in Australian politics, but in practice the voters aren’t likely to pay enough attention to make it work. The Liberal brand has value, independently of who its key figures at any given time are or what it stands for at any given election. Most people who have voted Liberal at recent state elections will vote Liberal no matter how unimpressive the party’s performance. The trick is in getting enough non-aligned voters and weak supporters of other parties to vote Liberal to secure victory.
Continue reading “What happens to the Liberal Party if it loses? (Part 2)”

Is dissent being silenced in Australia?

[Post restored from National Library archive]

If Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison are to be believed, the chapters of their edited collection Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate

paint a picture of Australian democracy in serious jeopardy….The longer term picture is even more worrying: authoritarianism can only flourish where democracy has been eroded.

As with the critics of political correctness claiming through the mass media that they were being censored by feminazis etc, this book suffers from a self-refuting quality – how silenced can be dissenters be if their book is released by a leading publisher and has lengthy extracts published in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald?

And it is bad timing when a book claiming there is an ???overall strategy of silencing critics??? through ???personal vilification of experts who do not share the government???s views??? appears in the bookshops the same day as The Australian has on its front page a picture of a beaming John Howard congratulating Tim Flannery, a long-term critic of the government???s climate change policies, on becoming Australian of the Year. Flannery promised to keep up the criticism.

What to do with examples like these is the problem this book never resolves, and indeed barely realises that it has – how much weight to give the evidence that supports their hypothesis compared to the evidence that does not. For every instance they report where the Howard government may have been too heavy-handed there are countless counter-examples where things have gone according to text book democratic theory. Why take deviations from good practice as representing the underlying character of the government, rather than what routinely goes on most of the time? Aren’t we seeing here the difference between a journalistic and social science view of the world, with the former focusing on novelty and breaches of norms, and the latter focusing on identifying averages and distinguishing them from outliers?

I’m quite prepared to believe, as the book argues, that people like Senators Eric Abetz or Bill Heffernan sometimes over-step the mark in their criticism of the government???s opponents. Buy why focus on those two? Most Liberal MPs – including the PM – almost always refrain from trips to the gutter. ‘Vilification??? should be discouraged as unhelpful to debate, but who seriously believes that it can ever be eliminated – or that ???democracy??? is threatened by it? Most people with a public profile accept that some personal abuse is inevitable, and that they should just let it pass. Howard is the most criticised individual in Australia of the last decade, but clearly he does not let it get to him. Thin-skinned lefties could learn that from him, if nothing else.

In his chapter on universities, Stuart Macintyre recounts, under the heading ???restricting academic freedom???, the story of former Education Minister Brendan Nelson rejecting several Australian Research Council grants he did not like. My own view is that Nelson made the wrong call on this, but the fact remains that most ARC grants pass through the Minister???s office without comment and the universities still get block research funding which they spend on anything they like – including attacks on the Howard government.

In the chapter on NGOs – a summary of survey research which The Australia Institute published more than two years ago – most government-funded NGOs felt that their funding affected their capacity to comment on government policy. But the original survey paints a more complex picture: 58% said that their organisation’s key messages were ‘often critical’ of the government, most thought that over the last five and ten years they had been more successful in getting their message across, and only a fifth had any formal controls on what they could say. So most of them are engaged in public debate, including commentary critical of the government. Also, the chapter fails to give any examples of NGOs that had their funding cut in circumstances where their criticism of government was clearly a major factor (though I can think of at least one example of a de-funded body that provided no useful service and was only a critic).

In looking at how systems function, the rule counts for more than the exceptions. Contrary to what Maddison argues in her chapter, Western democracies are ‘robust’, because though there are always some ad hoc departures from democratic norms there are no significant groups that reject the fundamental principles of democracy. So while at any given time there are things that could be done better, the basic institutions work – people can have their say, can organise politically, can run for office, and can vote in elections. When they lose elections, governments vacate office without question. Nobody worries that the military might intervene.

The book, in its focus on government or government-funded institutions, misses the distinction between ’silencing’ someone (ie actually prohibiting them from expressing their views) and merely not funding them to criticise the government. It should be a vital distinction, and it has only lost some of its significance because government funding is so pervasive. As the liberal right has argued all along, even if there is not a ‘road to serfdom’ there is at least a tension between a big state and a free society. But for the left-wing contributors to this book, it is hard for them to accept that the things they support, big government and ‘dissent’, may not be fully compatible with each other.

Silencing Dissent also overlooks the positive things that have happened for public debate in the Howard years – mostly relating to the internet. This is the most important democratisation of knowledge ever. Lots of information, including very large quantities of government information, that was once difficult and expensive to acquire can now be located quickly and downloaded for free. Numerous political groups use the web to organise themselves. Just about any opinion can be found on the web, with attempts at censorship largely doomed to failure. This is is the easiest time in Australian history to ‘dissent’ – and all the more so if you sensibly refuse to take any government money.

Though Maddison and Hamilton dismiss the ‘cabal’ of Howard-government supporters associated with Quadrant, the IPA and the CIS who they think will ‘disparage the editors and contributors to this book as hysterical Howard haters’, the CIS’s rejection of government money has given it the freedom to publish hundreds of thousands of words critical of the government without fear of retribution. Unlike lefties in NGOs and universities, we haven’t sold our souls to the state.

The invisible classical liberals

I’m no fan of identity politics, but it can get a little frustrating when people won’t recognise my political position. Even when a newspaper gives a generally uncritical summary of something I have written (my big government conservatism Policy article), they can open by saying:

IT’S a turn up for the books when a right-wing think-tank launches an attack on the Howard Government.

But as it turns out, hell hath no fury like a conservative scorned. (emphasis added)

So even in an article expressly criticising conservatism I still get classed as a ‘conservative’.

Bryan Palmer’s Australian Politics Quiz caused similar dissatisfaction this week among my fellow classical liberals, who were classed as ‘left’ on ‘traditional’ values (as I was when I took the test), though few of us would ever regard ourselves as ‘left’ in any way. At Club Troppo, Mark Bahnisch explained the situation this way:

The thing is though that libertarians traditionally are a very small current in what is a very statist political culture on both sides of the aisle in Australia.

Having said that, certainly social liberalism is more in evidence now and can be found in all political parties, as can social conservatism (at least in the majors).

I still think consistent economic/social liberals are pretty rare in Australian politics, and getting rarer. As I

Should graduates get a special first home buyer grant?

In his Melbourne University speech yesterday, Kevin Rudd used an argument Jenny Macklin had long made against student debt:

Since 1996, the debt burden for university students has increased from $4.5 billion to nearly $13 billion. How can a young person build a deposit for a home if they are carrying a massive education debt?

Leaving aside technical objections – the size of student debt is irrelevant to annual repayments, which is what affects ability to service a mortgage – conceptually why should graduates get this kind of special treatment?

According to an ABS survey, the vast majority of university students give as the main reason for their current study as something to do with work. The same survey shows that graduates earn significantly more than other people – about half as much again, on average, as someone whose highest qualification is Year 12. The gap is even larger for the typical household breadwinner, the male partner. On my rough calculations (the data I have is not broken down by age, and does not take account of family benefits) male graduates are still about 40% ahead of males with Year 12 only even after tax and HECS repayments are deducted. Compounding the income gap, a majority of graduates aged less than 45 who have partners are with someone who also has a degree.

So though graduates are caught up in the general home affordability problem, they remain in a relatively strong financial position compared to the rest of the population. By easing financial burdens relating to student debt, Labor would be giving the people least in need of extra assistance to buy a home an added boost – a special first home buyer grant for the privileged. Worse, the extra cash would be used to further bid up house prices, worsening affordability for others. And this is from the egalitarian party?

The tensions in Labor’s education agenda

When Kevin Rudd walked into an overflowing lecture theatre at Melbourne University today the crowd broke into spontaneous applause. The true believers are desperate for Labor to win. The basic theme of Rudd’s speech was that Australia can do better on education, which the Labor leader argues is crucial to improving Australia’s productivity performance (the audience may not have been so impressed with the focus on economics; many academics like to think they are above mere money-making).

The speech itself was just rhetoric, but the ALP has also released a more substantial discussion paper (pdf). The first half discusses the long-term foundations of prosperity and the importance of productivity, and the second half focuses on human capital.

The tensions between the two halves are what Labor needs to overcome if it is going to be credible on education. They note that one way of increasing productivity is improving the way firms and industries are organised:

That requires the right market incentives for resources to flow to the more efficient areas of the economy, and for businesses to organise themselves in the most productive way … this means businesses working in competitive product markets …

And that another way is to:

improve the quality of production inputs themselves. This in particular means raising the quality of human capital by investing in the workforce…

But if we are to improve our human capital it is not just a matter of increasing inputs, as the second section with all its comparisons with other OECD countries implies, but improving the productivity (broadly defined) of the education industry.

Australia has been increasing its spending on non-tertiary spending. The OECD Education at a Glance publication shows that on non-tertiary education Australia has increased its spending by more than the international average since the mid-1990s. Though productivity is very hard to measure in education, I doubt many people believe there have been significant improvements in school level educational outcomes in that time – certainly not the increasing number of parents shifting their kids to private schools.

Just throwing more money at schools isn’t going to work without sound curricula and good teaching, and in those areas we run straight into the heavily-entrenched centralised education bureaucracies running the public school system and the teacher unions that have obstructed many previous attempts at reform. Without even direct constitutional control over schools, federal Labor will struggle to make the necessary reforms, even if it supports them in principle (which at this stage is far from clear).
Continue reading “The tensions in Labor’s education agenda”

How influential will the Iraq war be on the 2007 vote?

According to a poll reported in today’s Australian, 71% of voters say that the federal government’s handling of the Iraq war will be important in how they will vote in the federal election.

It sounds like a lot, but when you look at Newspoll’s tables more carefully its significance becomes less clear. For example, though 65% of people who say that they support the Coalition regard the government’s handling of the war as an important issue, only 41% of Coalition voters say they are against the government’s handling of the war. This suggests that some people are saying that they support the Coalition because of the Iraq war. And of Coalition supporters who are against the war, if it would influence their vote why isn’t it influencing what they tell Newspoll now? After all, surveys are an opportunity to send the government a message without actually risking putting keen Kevin in the Lodge.

On the Labor side, 78% say that the Iraq war will be important to their vote. There is some consistency here, since 79% of Labor voters are against the way the government has handled the Iraq war. Yet most of the 46% of people who say they will vote Labor would have done so whether the Australian troops were in Townsville or Baghdad. The ALP’s primary has not been below a third since the last election.

It’s hard to believe that the government’s position on Iraq is helping them electorally, whatever a few Coalition voters are telling Newspoll – but it is also hard to use single-issue polls to estimate the effects of policies on voting behaviour. What we can say is that for a range of reasons the two-party preferred isn’t good for the government – 55-45 in Labor’s favour. Things haven’t been that bad since March 2004 – six months before an election in which Labor lost seats.

When should we dob?

Last week, I was encouraging readers to dob in a Trot. But in the Sunday Age yesterday IPA Review Editor and semi-regular blogger Chris Berg argues that dobbing could undermine community trust:

Trust is at the centre of every personal and economic relationship we have and without it, any community in the meaningful sense of the word is impossible. Encouragement by the government to dob each other in discourages the formation of that trust. The extreme example of a government actively encouraging the breaking of that trust suggests how important it is. In totalitarian socialist and fascist societies, the state broke down civil society to such an extent that people would report even their own family members for any perceived minor infractions.

The context for this is controversy about the Victorian government’s Dob in a Water Cheat line, designed to detect those breaching Melbourne’s tight water restrictions:

MARGARET Norriss is living in fear. The retired teacher is so scared of the emergence of water vigilantes that she doesn’t dare hose her front garden, even though she has been using a rainwater tank for the past nine years.

“The whole thing is turning the community against one another,” Ms Norriss told The Sunday Age. “It’s becoming like Big Brother and I’m starting to feel very uncomfortable.”

In the ethics of dobbing, I think there are at least two clear categories and a more complex one in the middle – where I think we find water dobbing, but Chris does not. We both agree that dobbing in criminals and terrorists is ok. As Chris puts it:
Continue reading “When should we dob?”