School type and uni completion

Several studies have come to the conclusion that, for a given ENTER score, university students who went to private schools do not do as well in first year as their peers who went to government schools. Various theories have been advanced to explain this, including the coaching of private schools leading to ENTER scores that over-state the student’s underlying ability, poor adjustment from the spoon-feeding that apparently goes on at some private schools to the more self-directed learning at university, and private school students taking advantage of the absence of constant school and parental supervision to enjoy themselves after several years of hard work.

Unfortunately these studies tend to focus on first year, rather than what happens in subsequent years. A new study out today by Gary Marks of the Australian Council for Educational Research doesn’t examine marks at university, but does look at completion of university courses by 2004 of students who were in Year 9 in 1995.

Without adjusting for any background variables, the study finds that university students who went to Catholic schools were the most likely to complete a course with a completion rate of 87.7%. Independent school students were next on 81.4%, and government school students just below that on 78.5%. But ‘overall, after controlling for background characteristics and ENTER scores, school sector had no impact on expected completion rates.’ So whatever problems some private school students have in first year, they do not translate into lower completion rates in the end.
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A separation of partisan power?

A Newspoll in this morning’s Australian (can’t see a link, but it should be on the Newspoll website soon) explored whether voters see the federal structure as a way of distributing power not just between the States and the Commonwealth, but also between Liberal and Labor. At first glance, a plurality see benefit in such a division of power. 42% of respondents thought that overall it would be bad for Australia if Labor controlled both levels of government, while 37% said it would be good.

But a breakdown of such opinion according to party support suggests that this result has less to do with preferring a separation of partisan power than with concern about one’s own party. For example, 76% of Coalition supporters think that having Labor in power at both levels would be bad for Australia, compared to 22% of Labor voters. On the other hand, 60% of Labor supporters think that it would be good for Australia if Labor controlled both levels of government, compared to 9% of Coalition voters (That many? Perhaps they think that it would end blame shifting and encourage cooperation.)

This is unlikely to be just Labor voters, with their faith in the state, lacking concern with a division of power. We can see this from a question in the 2004 Australian Election Survey about a semi-analagous situation, the same party controlling both the Senate and the House of Representatives. With knowledge of the Senate outcome (the survey was conducted after the election) 56% of Coalition voters thought that it was better for the same party to control both houses, compared to 12% of Labor voters.
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The Melbourne Model

This morning’s papers ran a lot of pre-launch publicity for the Melbourne Model, the University of Melbourne’s new approach to higher education that was officially launched today and will be phased in from 2008.

Over time, the number of undergraduate degrees will drop to six: Arts, Science, Environments, Commerce, Music and Biomedicine. Most professional courses will be taught in graduate schools, with a dozen of these new Masters-level courses starting in 2008, and more to follow in subsequent years.

I’ve said little about this on the blog, as part of a general effort to keep separate and conflict-of-interest-free my roles as an employee of the University of Melbourne and as a higher education commentator. I’ll keep avoiding public discussion of the merits and demerits of the changes (though of course I think that there should be more choice in Australian higher education, with the market rather than the Commonwealth deciding what is offered). Plenty of other people have been offering their views on the substance of the changes at Melbourne. But there are a couple of contextual policy points worth making.
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Is the Commonwealth a university customer or shareholder?

Universities … should be accountable to the taxpayers who sustain them…

Universities have a responsibility to demonstrate to taxpayers that they are efficient and well governed.

Education Minister Julie Bishop, in a speech to the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Summit last week.

That’s certainly how the Commonwealth sees universities – as federal government institutions that spend the Commonwealth’s money and are therefore ‘accountable’ to it. But one immediate problem here is that universities are not federal government institutions, but (with the exception of the ANU) creations of state legislation with accountability mechanisms, mainly in reporting information, established by state governments.

Another way of looking at is that the Commonwealth is simply a major client of universities. This is an analysis they have impliedly encouraged, by moving away from block grants, which universities could spend on very broadly defined purposes, to funding of programmes with specified outputs. For example, instead of providing a block grant for teaching, as occurred until 2004, the Commonwealth now specifies – sometimes down to specific courses at specific campuses – how many student places universities will provide. If the Commonwealth is simply a client of universities, it is entitled to ensure that the university supplies the number of places it said it would, but has no authority beyond that, just as when you order something from a retailer you are entitled to get what you pay for, but not to instruct them to reduce the number of people on their board of directors.

But instead of seeing the Commonwealth as a customer, Bishop sees it as a shareholder entitled to tell universities how to run their business:

The sector needs to continue its governance reforms so that taxpayers can be assured that the institutions – in which they are effectively shareholders – are being run efficiently.

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The PM’s left-leaning campaign rhetoric

The Parliamentary Library has published a new monograph by Maurice Rickard called Principle and Pragmatism: A study of competition between Australia’s major parties at the 2004 election and other recent federal elections (you can tell they aren’t commercial publishers, can’t you?). It has lots of interesting material derived from the Australian Election Surveys and also an analysis of campaign launch speeches to gauge ideological positions and shifts.

Rickard uses the Manifesto Research Group categories to code each sentence in the campaign speeches and to classify them as ‘left’ or ‘right’. Unsurprisingly, he finds that the major parties are close to the centre but in the places we would expect, with Labor just to the left and the Liberals just to the right (though with the Liberals closer to the centre overall).

The chart that most interested me (on p.68, for those who download the publication) was the division of issues into economic and non-economic. This shows that since 1998 the Liberals have moved to the right on economic issues and to the left on non-economic issues. Their campaign rhetoric is consistent with strong spending increases on health and education, and the overall philosophy of ‘big government conservatism’, with growth-oriented economic policies used to finance a large welfare state.

As I have argued before, the big question is how viable this is as a long-term political strategy. Despite the Liberals’ rhetorical and policy shifts on non-economic issues, public opinion still favours Labor on these matters. And that’s with the benefit of being in government and actually implementing big-spending policies. If the Coalition loses the 2007 poll, will voters believe Opposition promises, or fall back on long-standing stereotypes of the political parties? The danger, as has happened in the states, is that the Liberals will just look like a less sincere and less competent version of Labor.

Is mental ill-being increasing?

One much-publicised finding of the National Health Survey carried out by the ABS is that the self-reported mental health of Australians is declining. In the 1995 survey, 5.9% of the sample reported ‘mental and behavioural problems’, which increased to 9.6% in 2001 and 10.7% in 2004-05. An earlier ABS survey, carried out in 1989-90, came up with lower figures than 1995 – 3.8% reporting ‘nerves, tension, nervousness, emotional problems’ and 0.9% reporting depression. However, its question was different so comparisons should be made with caution.

The rapid increase has led to widespread concern, but also suspicion that there is something wrong with the numbers. Will Wilkinson has long argued that the depression trends (which are similar in the US) are fishy because they don’t match the happiness data. If there was a big increase in depression there should be a substantial increase in those with lower happiness ratings in subjective well-being surveys, but there is not in the US or UK.

In Australia, it’s harder to test this hypothesis because of inconsistent survey formats. In 1983 and 1984, two surveys giving very/fairly/not too happy options found 6% giving the ‘not too happy’ response. The two most recent surveys, the 2003 and 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, used 0-10 scales. If we count 0 to 4 as ‘unhappy’ we get 6.5% and 8.2% of respondents respectively as ‘unhappy’. The 2003 survey would seem to show little change in 20 years, consistent with what Will finds. The 2005 survey shows a more significant change. But both are below the mental problems reported in the National Health Survey.
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The anti-economic rationalist genre

Some years ago, in reviewing Lindy Edwards’ book How to Argue with an Economist, I suggested that it was part of a genre of anti-economic rationalist writing. I think ‘genre’ is a good way of describing critiques of economic rationalism, because it picks up connotations of a common style as well as of shared subject matter and perspective.

There was another example of this in an article by Martin Feil in today’s Age, run under the title ‘We killed manufacturing’. It’s a vigorous polemic against economic rationalism and free-market economics, but as is usual in this genre it does not cite any actual economic rationalist or free market advocate and shows the standard lack of interest in facts.

Admittedly, indifference to evidence does have its liberating effects, allowing creativity closed to those who drearily stick to what can be substantiated. Take this claim, for example:

According to the free-market adherents, productivity improvements occur only when there is no government intrusion in the marketplace. Businesses are left to compete and only the most efficient survive. They then altruistically give their efficiency gains to consumers to grow the market. (emphasis added)

I’ve been reading anti-economic rationalist tracts for 20 years, and have read countless denunciations of free-market theories putting self-interest at their centre, but I think this is the first time I’ve seen the theory criticised for putting too much faith in altruism. Of course many people are altruistic, but it would indeed be a foolish theory that assumed business would give productivity gains away out of generosity. If it happens, it’s because business want to increase the amount they sell by lowering prices – as free market theory would predict.
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Will the Per Capita think-tank find a niche?

According to The Age, next Wednesday will see a new ‘progressive’ think-tank launched, Per Capita.

This idea has been floating around for a while – I gave them some advice many months ago – so it will be interesting to see how well it goes.

I have had doubts about whether their organisational structure is the right one. For example, when advertising for an Executive Director earlier this year they wanted a rare mix of skills –

You probably have
• an advanced degree
• a reputation as a ‘thought leader’
• an understanding of how ideas, economics and politics interact, including professional public policy experience
• professional management experience, sufficient to manage a small but complex organisation
• strong communications skills, including experience of the electronic media and an ability to write well
• adaptability, flexibility and problem-solving expertise and an entrepreneurial mind-set
• a background in public policy, politics, the media, academia, management consultancy or business.

but then offered only a 12 month contract.

Unsurprisingly, the successful applicant, David Hetherington, doesn’t obviously meet more than a few points on this wish-list. I could find only one published article, this four-year old Online Opinion piece, which is just a summary of the standard union line on minimum wages.

The policy director, Michael Cooney, is a long-time ALP staffer. He’ll bring strong political connections and policy experience to the job, but like Hetherington he has no pre-existing intellectual reputation based on published work. And how long would he stay once a Rudd government started recruiting?
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The slowing of big government conservatism

Last December I was complaining, at length, about the rise of big government conservatism. But the release this week of the ABS’s Government Finance Statistics for 2005-06 shows some welcome spending constraint.

Overall, spending was up 5.5% on 2004-05. But inflation of 3.2% accounts for some of that (directly relevant because of the indexation of benefits). Also, as I did before, I calculated spending on a per person basis, as the approximately quarter of a million extra Australians would have added to expenditure regardless of spending policy decisions. This brings the increase down to 3.8%, .6% above inflation. It’s not a great record, but by the standards of the current government it is not bad.

The pattern of spending increases also looked a little more like we would expect of a conservative government than previous years, with ‘defence’ and ‘public order and safety’ receiving larger percentage increases than health or social security. However, education enjoyed strong growth (8.5% per capita), and unusually this was driven more by universities than schools. The most spectacular increase was the 1,973% lift in per capita spending on ‘water supply’. But as spending was only $1 per person per year previously this still left water as one of the cheapest items in the federal Budget (at least before the $10 billion Murray-Darling plan that failed to impress Treasury Secretary Ken Henry).

Alas, the ABS Tax Revenue publication, also released this week, shows that per capita Commonwealth taxes continued their steady rise, up 5.6% per person between 2004-05 and 2005-06. As Stephen Kirchner and others have pointed out, it’s far from clear that the government should be stashing the difference between per capita tax increases and per capita spending increases away for the benefit of future taxpayers (or, if Labor wins, future broadband users) rather than reforming the tax system now. Despite tax cuts in the last couple of Budgets, the government remains rather reluctant to let Australians keep their money.