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.