The ALP came down with a bout of OECDitis yesterday, a condition that afflicts many politicians and commentators when they offer arguments assuming that whatever on average happens in other OECD countries Australia should do as well. The virus yesterday was the 2007 edition of the OECD’s statistical compendium, Education at a Glance (at 451 pages, it is very long glance).

The problem, according to the ALP, is that:

* Australia is the third worst of all OECD countries – ahead of only Korea and the United States — on public education spending as a proportion of total education spending;
* Public investment in preschool has languished at just 0.1 per cent of GDP, the equal lowest of all OECD countries with Korea; and
* Public investment in tertiary education has fallen by four per cent at the same time the average OECD investment increased by 49 per cent with Australia being the only country to record a drop in public investment.

Third worst of all OECD countries on public spending as a proportion of all education spending? Continue reading “OECDitis”

Do gap years improve marks?

As I have noted in several posts, there is a clear trend towards school leavers starting university at a slightly older age. My hunch has been that this is not necessarily a bad thing, but there has been little evidence either way.

Research based on UWA students reported in today’s SMH suggests that there may be academic advantages. Taking a ‘gap’ year correlates with higher marks, with gap year students on average getting marks that are 2.4 percentage points greater than other students.

The gains are largest for students with lower ENTER scores. Someone entering on an ENTER of 80 received average marks 4.2 percentage points higher if they had taken a gap year, while the difference is only 1.3 percentage points on an ENTER of 98.

What isn’t entirely clear here is whether the gap year’s main effect is to remotivate people burnt out after year 12 – as seems to be the case for Jerome Doraismy, written up in the SMH story – or whether the positive results are due to other causes, such as removing from the pool students likely to do badly, better choices of courses or institutions, or improved finances due to savings and Youth Allowance eligibility lessening the need to work long hours while studying.

The fact that the benefits are greatest for students with lower marks who are at greater risk of doing poorly suggests that there might be a selection effect, but that there is some advantage (though not a large one) even for the most able students suggests that the year off confers some benefits even for those who were always likely to study and do well. It is, of course, possible for all factors to make some contribution.

Like virtually all the literature on school to university transition, this study focuses only on first-year university results. It would be interesting to see if the benefits persisted into second year. My guess is that they don’t; or at least not on the same scale. By then other students will have achieved a better match of course and institution, and after twelve months the positive effects of a holiday from study probably start to wear off.

My blog is one today

A year ago today I started as a solo blogger. Unlike my previous group blog Catallaxy I’m not being written up in books about the media, but I do get media enquiries and writing requests based on blog posts.

Some of them are very unexpected – I would never have anticipated being asked to debate the door policy of a gay bar with an American philosopher of sex in a British philosophy magazine, but that’s where this post seems to have led (it should appear sometime in the next month).

And in contrast to the general impression that the inhibition-dropping nature of the blogosphere makes it a polarising place, my criticisms of people sometimes lead to positive and thoughtful responses, both in comments and in person. I hope it is because I (mostly…) stick to the spirit of my comments policy and keep my posts calm and polite. (Andrew Leigh seems to think so, anyway).

Luckily almost all commenters have also kept to the civility rules, and I think the comments thread is much better for it. There have been some good debates in comments threads, and from my perspective plenty of useful additional information, corrections, suggestions, and criticisms among the 5,354 comments so far. Our lurkers offer more of the same in email, by phone and in person. So thanks.
Continue reading “My blog is one today”

The rise but not triumph of the private higher ed providers

According to The Australian, we are seeing a ‘private uni bonanza’. 260 of the 2,300 new university places announced by Julie Bishop yesterday went to private institutions – Avondale College, the University of Notre Dame, Christian Heritage College, and the Tabor Colleges in South Australia and Victoria.

Perhaps more significantly, the extension of FEE-HELP loans to any institution offering accredited higher education courses seems to have produce a surge in their student numbers. All up in the first half of 2006 there were about 21,000 students with government support, either in tuition subsidies or loans, outside the traditional public sector universities (not all of them are at private providers though; there are publicly-owned institutions including TAFEs on the list). That’s nearly twice as many as the year before, compared to enrolment growth of just 1% in the public institutions. Take out the newly-listed institutions, and the non-public university higher ed sector still shows a very respectable 31% growth rate.

Bishop’s allocations and her Department’s statistics highlight how blurred the distinctions between public and private higher education have become. Public universities take fee-paying students and private universities take government subsidised students. Many more students at private institutions take government loans, but are denied tuition subsidies received by people taking similar courses at public universities. The higher education system is just a series of anomalies held together by inertia.
Continue reading “The rise but not triumph of the private higher ed providers”

The curse of the 1970s strikes again

The curse of the 1970s struck twice yesterday. In talking to The Australian, Kevin Rudd again indulged his nostalgia for Whitlamesque free education, while stopping short of promising to bring it back:

the Opposition Leader says he also feels uneasy that young Australians do not have access to free tertiary education, which he received in the 1970s under Gough Whitlam’s reforms.

But ….Mr Rudd said the need for economic responsibility precluded a return to free education.

Instead, he promised to ease the burden of the Labor-introduced Higher Education Contribution Scheme, which he said was out of control and prevented children from working-class families from going to university.

But as readers of this blog know, that idea has been persistently discredited. Last year there was the Cardak and Ryan paper that showed for their sample (of young people) that nothing mattered except Year 12 results. The cruder postcode indicator used by DEST also shows that the proportion of low SES enrolments has been flat since statistics started being collected in the early 1990s, despite two significant price increases since (and the absolute number is well up).
Continue reading “The curse of the 1970s strikes again”

Unhealthy federalism

This morning’s ACNielsen poll attracted most attention for adding another week to Labor’s remarkable lead in the polls, but it also reported some interesting issue polling.

Alas, support for federalism – at least so far as it concerns hospitals – is no stronger than the Coalition primary vote. 40% think that it would be better if hospitals were run by the states, compared to 42% who think the federal government should do it.

I doubt that this is an ideological thing; federalism (as opposed to parochial concerns with ‘state’s rights’) has never really been widely understood among the politically active, much less the masses. It is a pragmatic assessment of which level of government seems most competent, with 55% of those polled agreeing that the health system is ‘not very well run’, and nearly twice as many people (46%) blame the states for this as blame the federal government (24%).

Personally, I doubt the federal government would do a better job. The Canberra bureaucracy has relatively little experience of service delivery compared to their state counterparts, and with the added disadvantage of being very remote from the places they need to service. The one advantage of the otherwise poor policy on display in Mersey hospital takeover may be to provide evidence that the Commonwealth does no better at running hospitals than the states.

Adam Smith Institute defends the wrong guy

Stephen Kirchner points out this rather strange post at the Adam Smith Institute blog defending Peter Costello against charges that the Coalition has turned to ‘big government’.

Adam Smith Institute blogger Fred Hansen, like the Treasurer, focuses on government spending as a proportion of GDP. As I have argued, with strong economic growth that measure can conceal a multitude of spending sins.

But even if we accepted spending as a proportion of GDP, the government’s record isn’t as good as Hansen says it is. As Robert Carling explains, the Commonwealth’s own-purpose outlays (ie after deducting general purpose grants to the states, now funded by the GST) are forecast to consume 1.5% more of GDP in 2007-08 than 1995-96.

Nor is the reduction over time in the percentage of GDP consumed by all levels of government anything impressive by international standards. As OECD statistics show, many other countries reduced spending as a share of GDP more than Australia did – including most European countries, the home of big-spending social democracies.

Hansen is right that the Howard government’s record is better than that of the US in recent years, but it wouldn’t be hard to put in a better performance than the reckless extravagance of the Bush administration.

Do editors need government subsidies?

Most of an article in today’s Age by Michael Heyward, the head of the critically and commercially successful Text Publishing, shows how well the Australian book industry operates in the market.

On Heyward’s figures, 60% of books sold in Australia are published in Australia, which if true is remarkable given the range and quality of imported books (of course some of the 60% would be overseas-authored books for which local publishers have bought the Australian rights). According to Heyward, our mix of bookshops is better than those in Britain, the US or Canada. Australians, he says, are near the top of the list for book consumption per capita (though on actually reading books we are typical of the Anglosphere, according to this recent Morgan Poll).

The only statistic he can find to suggest, in his view, that there is anything wrong is the number of books published per million people, in which we ‘lag’ behind other countries – but this is surely in the worthless factoid department since what is the possible rationale for yet more books when not even the most dedicated reader could get through the 8,602 titles that were published in Australia in 2003-04? (And most of the countries he mentions are not English speaking, and cannot use foreign publishers in the way Australians can).

But Heyward is determined to find something for the government to spend our money on, and it is editors. Continue reading “Do editors need government subsidies?”

Does the federal government spend more on private schools than universities?

Lesson of the day: don’t say things to journalists relying on memory alone. Yesterday I spoke to a reporter from The Australian, and during the conversation agreed with a claim from University of Melbourne higher education expert Simon Marginson that the federal government spends more on private schools than on universities. That was printed in this morning’s paper.

I had some time ago looked into this oft-repeated claim by the public education lobby and decided that it was defensible but a factoid (meaning 2). It was defensible because if you count only direct subsidies related to tuition then more is spent on private schools than on universities (approximately $5 billion compared to approximately $3.5 billion in 2005). But I deemed it a factoid because private school funding supports more than twice as many students. It is less than surprising that about 1.1 million school students cost more than about 450,000 university students (full-time equivalent).

But I’d forgotten that the university income number did not include research and other grants to universities, which take the spend up closer to $6 billion, or the significant contribution to university cash flow made by student loans, which add in another $2 billion.

So if we looked at total support for universities it is significantly higher than total support for private schools.

In my defence I did dismiss the value of the comparison (which wasn’t reported), and note that there had been a significant recent increase in university funding (which was reported), and the original purpose of the conversation had been to discuss something else entirely, for which I had the relevant spreadsheets open when I returned the call. But I should have said nothing or at least fact-checked myself afterwards. Someone did question my evidence today, and they were right to do so.

Can economic growth reduce life satisfaction?

Last week Andrew Leigh linked to this paper by Angus Deaton which, using poll data from 132 countries, came up with findings contrary to previous subjective well-being research:

Average happiness is strongly related to per capita national income; each doubling of income is associated with a near one point increase in life satisfaction on a scale from 0 to 10. Unlike most previous findings, the effect holds across the range of international incomes; if anything, it is slightly stronger among rich countries. Conditional on national income, recent economic growth makes people unhappier… (emphasis added)

I’m not as convinced as Andrew that this is a good paper. The ‘life satisfaction’ question doesn’t actually directly ask whether people are satisfied with their lives, but instead asks them to imagine a ladder where the bottom represents the ‘worst possible life for you’ and the top the ‘best possible life for you’. The respondents are then asked where on the ladder they feel they stand at the present time. It would be quite possible to be dissatisfied with your life and to think that it won’t get any better, so low on a conventional life satisfaction rating but high on the imaginary ladder (personally, I’d put myself higher on the ladder than I would rate myself for life satisfaction). This could possibly explain why rich countries do well in the survey, since when things are already going well there is less scope for a better life.

And perhaps someone can explain the statistics to me, but I can’t see that Deaton has the data to show that ‘recent economic growth’ makes people unhappier. Continue reading “Can economic growth reduce life satisfaction?”