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.

9 thoughts on “Labor’s unscientific plans to boost science

  1. “The press release (which is all we have) is rather vague…..”

    Talk about shooting yourself in the foot…….Judas Priest, Andrew…..couldn’t you at least wait for the release of the policy document before making yourself look the….[civility breach!].

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  2. Andrew,

    Is it really true that the number of places is simply set by the *government* bureacracy? At least where I work, maths and stats is conglomerated into other departments (which is common). Whether a course then gets run, whether funds are used to promote it etc. is then based on demand. Since there is never enough demand for pure maths/stats courses, the places simply get distributed into other (non-maths) areas where there is that are in the same funding group (or for that matter, simply more popular/cheaper courses). Thus there is a decent component that gets set based on demand that has nothing to do with the number of places set by the governement. I’m sure this must be pretty common in all of these conglomerate departments.

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  3. Conrad – Universities sign funding agreements with the Commonwealth in which they agree to numbers of places in each of 12 funding clusters. Maths and stats have their own cluster, while science shares one with engineering and surveying. There is no problem with shuffling within a cluster.

    This is a new system, having only started in 2005. As yet, there are no specific penalties for not meeting a cluster-level target, though if the total value of places (across all clusters) is less than 99% of the agreed amount the university will have to repay some of its funding, and there are penalties if total enrolments exceed the agreed total by more than 5%.

    In 2005, the legislation waived all penalties. So we are really yet to see what the government will do if actual 2006 numbers are significantly different from the ‘agreed’ numbers.

    New places, however, are prescribed down to campus and course level, so no scope for shuffling.

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  4. Sorry to go a bit off-topic, but I find it interesting that there is an excess supply of science students/graduates and an undersupply of science teachers. I wonder what is going on here. Is it that science graduates have a greater aversion to teaching than humanities/social science graduates? Or could it be that the excess of science graduates is still less than the excess of humanities graduates? I suppose the answer could inform debate on whether the HECS remission scheme is likely to work.

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  5. Rajat – To become a science teacher requires an additional qualification if you did not study science as part of an education or teaching degree to begin with, so that means more time and expense to get a job that probably does not pay as well as the alternatives.

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  6. Rajat – As I understand it, 3 year Bachelor of Education courses take students straight from Year 12, while Dip Eds or Bachelor of Teaching are typically taken by people who have degrees in another field and want to become teachers.

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  7. There are several ways to get teaching qualifications – you can do a 3-yr Batch. of Education straight out of high school, which generally qualifies you to teach primary school, or you can do a degree in whatever (usually arts or science, with two majors) and then a 1-yr Diploma of Education, which qualifies you to teach high school in your chosen subject area.

    There are also now one-year Dip Eds to convert other degrees to primary teaching, but they’re not common.

    So, IN THEORY, this hecs reduction removes the comparatively higher cost for science rather than arts grads to do their Dip Ed, as it will cost them the same in total.

    I would suggest a better option would be to reduce the hecs of the Dip Ed, rather than the original Science degree.

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  8. Thanks, that makes sense — although I’m not sure why you think shuffling isn’t occuring under this method — its just shuffling via name change, like calling statistics “quantitative methods in the behavioral sciences” or building this stuff into other courses as an even better disguise “Experimental design and methods”. I guess what will be interesting to see then is if the maths/stats people start getting undissolved if universities think they can get higher enrolments because of the change despite the lower funding (or possibly higher, if the cluster gets promoted).

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