Confusing ends and means

The Australian’s Higher Education Supplement asked me to write a short piece on the issue of university efficiency, which appears here.

People who read this blog will already know my views on trends in administration costs. But in the HES version I pick up on this report on ABC radio on Monday:

Ms Bishop says the university sector should be more deregulated, but first the universities must show that they are efficient and productive.

I presume that’s a reference to the Group of Eight’s plans to replace the current system of allocating student places from Canberra with a ‘portable scholarship’ (aka voucher) system. The context of the discussion was ‘the funding model the Group of Eight wants’.

The Minister is confusing means and ends. A more competitive system is not a reward for becoming more ‘efficient and productive’. It is a way of pressuring universities to become more ‘efficient and productive’.

While I don’t disagree that universities can be more efficient than they are, history suggests that they are quite capable of responding to market forces if given the chance. Who would have believed in the late 1980s, when the international student market was deregulated, that the public universities could create one of the nation’s biggest export industries, and in less than 20 years?

The problems in the higher education sector are overwhelmingly due to chronically poor policymaking in Canberra. Alas, neither party is offering us anything better.

Are interest rates a vote changer?

Labor and the commentariat are very excited about interest rates – what with a broken promise to keep them low and the possibility of rates going up during a campaign. But as with household finances generally, do the voters have a sense of perspective that the political class lacks?

Back in August, Andrew Leigh wrote an op-ed suggesting that interest rates did not affect the 2004 election in the way conventional wisdom presumes. Today’s Newspoll suggests that the 2007 election may be similar.

In a question asking whether the respondent would be less likely to vote for the Coalition if interest rates went up, only 9% said it would. That was largely driven by people who had already said they were going to vote Labor. Only 2% of those indicating support for the Liberals said that they would be less likely to vote Liberal if rates went up. But 4% of Coalition supporters said that they would be more likely to vote for the Coalition, as did 2% of Labor voters.
Continue reading “Are interest rates a vote changer?”

The GetUp! argument for voting Liberal, National or Family First

The activist business GetUp! is running an unusual three-party election ad. It features Greens leader Bob Brown, Democrats leader Lyn Allison, and Labor Senator Kate Lundy under the banner ‘Save Our Senate’. You can watch the ad on their site, but its message is that to restore balance in the Senate voters should support one of the three anti-Coalition parties.

GetUp! supporters will, of course, vote for one of the three left-leaning parties. But I’m not sure that the ad’s logic quite works for other voters. It was never very likely that the Coalition would hold its Senate majority. Indeed, all the polls suggest that Australia is headed towards being a one-party state, in which Labor governments may not be very competent or popular but are nevertheless entrenched in power.

What we need here -as GetUp! itself thinks we have needed over the last three years – is some balance on otherwise unchecked power. But how likely are the Greens and Democrats to provide that in the Senate if they are so close to Labor that they are participating in joint advertising?

So on the logic of GetUp!’s ad, even those who want a change in government and will vote Labor (whether directly or via one of other parties) in the House of Representatives should vote Liberal, National or Family First in the Senate.

A baby bonus boom?

A story on The Age website this afternoon, referring to the release of the ABS birth statistics for 2006, is headlined ‘New figures reveal our baby boom’. It reports:

Australian Bureau of Statistics data released today showed that 265,900 births were registered in 2006, the second highest since the record 276,400 births recorded in 1971.

The baby bonus rate changed during the year, but on my estimates that would have cost taxpayers $950 million. So did nearly a billion dollars buy us an increase in the number of babies being born?

A closer examination of the statistics suggests not. Continue reading “A baby bonus boom?”

Is there ‘huge growth’ in the cost of university administration?

In responding to a Group of Eight whinge about university funding, Julie Bishop alleged:

“There has been huge growth in the cost of university administration and, given their strong financial position, the challenge for university management is to ensure their institutions are operating more efficiently and to invest more in teaching and research.”

I agree that universities could be more efficient. But I am not sure that we are witnessing ‘huge growth’ in the cost of university administration. I don’t know of any public data that directly measures administration costs, but DEST finance statistics divide employee costs into academic and non-academic. Staff are the major expense for universities. Over the period 2002 to 2006, total enrolments increased by 9.8% and total university expenses rose by 38%. Academic staff costs increased by 48% and non-academic staff costs by 46%. This suggests that staff costs are heading up at a faster rate than other costs, but not that administration costs are blowing out relative to teaching and research costs, unless there has been a growth in central administration staff at the expense of other non-academic staff.

DEST’s staff statistics get us closer to central administrators, but without counting just them. Their numbers are mixed in with the delivery of non-administrative services, such as maintenance and security. But their total share of university employment is stable on around 19% since 2000, slightly lower than it was in the 1990s. Continue reading “Is there ‘huge growth’ in the cost of university administration?”

The imaginary ghost of Menzies

The ghost of Robert Menzies has yet again been sent to haunt to the modern Liberal Party, this time by Canberra Times economics editor Peter Martin. The target is usually John Howard, but this time it is Peter Costello. In response to the Treasurer’s efforts this last week to heavy the banks into not raising interest rates, Martin writes:

John Howard’s hero, the founder of the Liberal Party and Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies fought the Labor Party’s attempt to nationalise Australia’s private banks with every fibre of his being….

The man who would like to become the next leader of the Liberal Party, Australia’s Treasurer Peter Costello is acting as if Menzies had never won…

The fact is the banks can move their rates wherever they like (so long as they don’t collude). Menzies made sure of it.

Like others who have taken up the Menzies-is-more liberal-than-Howard meme, Martin has his history wrong. As economist blogger Stephen Kirchner explained to me:

Continue reading “The imaginary ghost of Menzies”

Blog block

I’ve had several reports now, most recently from Boris, that my blog is being blocked by work web filters as being a sex site. Websense is at least one of the culprits.

Though I realise it is going to be hard for employees to complain that they are not being permitted to waste work time reading my blog, does anyone know if there is a way of appealing against incorrect classifications?

The academic ‘we’

Once there used to be a royal ‘we’ – the word ‘we’ used to mean ‘I’, as in Queen Victoria’s ‘we are not amused’. These days royals almost never say ‘we’ unless they mean ‘we’. The current British monarch doesn’t even always use ‘we’ when she could. In a phrase association game, the answer to ‘my husband and I’ is ‘Queen Elizabeth II’.

Yet there is one place in which people still say ‘we’ when they mean ‘I’, and that is academia. Only a couple of weeks ago I had to remove the academic ‘we’ from a sole-author article to be published in Policy. At his blog, Andrew Leigh labels this usage ‘pretentious’. Insofar as the academic we is an implicit reference back to the royal we, he is right. But I am not sure that is what academics are consciously doing when they write ‘we’ instead of ‘I’.

Perhaps it reflects the collegial tradition within academia. As Damien Eldridge (himself an academic) writes in Andrew L’s comments:

Continue reading “The academic ‘we’”

An unintimidated academic

John Buchanan may live in fear of a Joe Hockey put-down. But not all academics are so shy of taking on politicians. Take Roger Short, a (gasp) Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. According to The Australian, this week he told undergraduate students that:

Australia’s population will increase (and global warming worsen), if Peter Costello gets in,” he said on Tuesday.

“The man’s a bloody idiot.” …

“We’re going to see massive growth in the world’s two most affluent and effluent nations (the US and Australia) on a per capita basis.”

China was unfairly singled out in the debate; its one-child law was the “most exciting policy” to confront climate change.

“Point the fingers of blame at the USA and – as a silly little me-too copycat – Australia.” ..

“It makes me want to tear up my Australian passport. We are a disgraceful country.”

In any case, climate change would redraw the map as rising sea levels flooded many of Indonesia’s islands, he said. “With thousands of islands there are thousands of boats and by the end of this century I think Australia will be part of Indonesia.”

Students might have hoped for some scientific explanation when Professor Short came to give a lecture. After all, they can hear climate change rants at much lower cost from their local Green candidates.

Academic freedom from speech

On the evening of Monday 1 October, Age journalist Michael Bachelard rang the office of Workplace Relations Minister Joe Hockey. The call was about a report neither Hockey nor his staff had seen, Australia@Work. Bachelard explained some findings on pay under AWAs. With a deadline approaching, Hockey’s office hurriedly produced a response they didn’t proofread. As Bachelard tells the story:

Twenty minutes later, the minister emailed an official response.

“This report is not credible. It is the same old flawed research from the same old union accedemics (sic). It contradicts far more reliable findings from the ABS. It has (sic) hardly surprising that acdemics (sic) such as John Buchanan and Brigid van Wanrooy, who has previously authored ACTU research, would come up with such a flawed report.”

The next morning, presumably still not having seen the report, but with the task of defending the government’s industrial relations policies, Hockey accused the report’s authors of being ‘former trade union officials who are parading as academics’, who had suddenly released an anti-WorkChoices report just before the election. ‘So you have to look to their motives’, he said. ‘This research is heavily influenced by academics who have done a lot of work for the trade union movement over a number of years.’

To most of us, it looks like just another round of the quick and cheap point-scoring we see every day in Australian politics. 70% of Labor’s front bench are former trade union officials parading as potential Ministers, aren’t they? It’s hard to take seriously.

At universities, however, it seems to be a very serious matter indeed. In The Australian yesterday, University of Sydney Vice-Chancellor Gavin Brown was reported as saying:
Continue reading “Academic freedom from speech”