No higher ‘education revolution’

We are less than two weeks away from a Rudd government, but still the party promising an ‘education revolution’ has no higher education policy. The Opposition Leader’s campaign launch today did announce a few higher education related initiatives, but the silence continues on the key issues of how universities will be funded and how much they will get.

Two of the three initiatives announced today, while not high impact or on top priority matters, are likely to have some positive consequences for universities. The Future Fellowships program, which would give high salaries by university standards to mid-career researchers, could be a useful way of keeping academics with outside options in the higher education system. Doubling the number of research students receiving Australian Postgraduate Awards (effectively a scholarship that pays about $20K a year) could help more of them study full-time. In my own experience and that of many others, trying to write up a PhD while also working is very difficult.

I’m far less keen on Labor’s plan to double the number of Commonwealth Learning Scholarships, which provide about $2,000 a year to those who receive them, and expand the criteria away from just disadvantaged students to people enrolled in ‘national priority’ areas, and those moving interstate to study a specialist course not available near their home.

If the federal government is going to provide income support to students, it should do it in a fair and efficient manner. The Commonwealth Learning Scholarships fail both tests. It is not fair because the limits on numbers mean that scholarships can only go to some of those who satisfy the basic eligibility criteria. The universities get allocated a certain number of scholarships and then distribute them. The scholarships are not counted as income for the purposes of the Youth Allowance income test, while $2,000 received as wages by students who work would be counted and could reduce their welfare entitlements. The scholarships are inefficient because distributing them requires more bureaucracy in universities, when we already have Centrelink set up to handle income support. I’d scrap the scholarships and put the money towards reforming Youth Allowance.

Giving scholarships to people who happen to enrol in ‘national priority’ areas ‘such as nursing, teaching, medicine, dentistry, allied health, maths, science, and engineering’ is confusing. What is it supposed to achieve? Like Labor’s discount HECS for maths and science announced earlier in the year, this suggests that the Labor leadership doesn’t quite understand the issues in higher education. In his speech today, Kevin Rudd said:

we will tackle the chronic shortage of maths and science teachers by halving HECs for those disciplines at university.

But there is little evidence that financial incentives from government influence discipline choice; the main driver is student interests, and to the extent that students are driven by money career earnings factors will swamp a $2,000 a year scholarship. In many of the health-related fields, there is a lot of unmet demand already anyway. As this point suggests, the main problem is supply rather than demand. And to encourage supply, you need to raise the price paid to universities, not cut the price paid by students. The national priority scholarships will simply be a windfall gain for those students who receive them, and will have no impact on ‘national priority’ fields.

The scholarships for students moving interstate to study specialist courses is more interesting. It’s not trying to encourage students to do something they’d rather not do; it’s trying to make it easier for them to do something they really want to do. And a more national higher education market is also worth encouraging. But why just ‘interstate’? James Cook University’s tropical biology course in Townsville (Labor’s example) is a very long way from Brisbane as well as Sydney (Labor’s example).

Not all these ideas are bad, but the misguided focus on demand is a worrying sign about what might be in Labor’s higher education policy – if in fact they have one at all.

Update 15 November: For the first time in a long time I am in agreement with NUS:

National Union of Students president Michael Nguyen said instead of merely doubling the Government’s “inadequate scholarship program”, Labor should have announced a streamlined form of income support.

Labor’s student followers are also unimpressed with their decidedly non-revolutionary tinkering.

19 thoughts on “No higher ‘education revolution’

  1. My experience is that there are enough PhD scholarships (APAs) and not enough candidates. The entry criteria for the scholarhsips are quite low. I wonder what they will be after this.

    I would say they should have increased the scholarship from 20 to 30K instead.


  2. Boris – It’s not that hard to get a PhD place funded by the Commonwealth (no tuition charge). But at most institutions getting an income-support APA is pretty competitive. Like you I am inclined to think that more generous scholarships might be better than more scholarships. It would help attract better candidates.


  3. I think it depends on the area whether there are too many PhD scholarships to meet demand. Where I work the demand is certainly completely uneven across areas — especially for people that other’s might want to supervise. What’s funny is one of the bueracrats/faculty heads where I work wants more in his area where there is no demand, with the solution being that they take aweful students. I very much doubt any of the people that have to take these cruddy students agree, but no-one says anything thanks to the Stalinesc conditions. I believe the only real solution to their dilemma is to find overseas students from China/India, where they already get most of them.
    I don’t think increasing the scholarships would help for these areas, because the OS students from India/China will come no matter what; the amount you are talking about is not huge; the perception is that getting a PhD doesn’t do anything to your salary anyway (I’ve never seen the actual figures, but its probably true if you take into account the 3-4 years of wages/experience lost); and therefore the main benefit is so you can work in universities for less money and a crappier job than you would get in industry, which is hardly a great incentive. Alternatively, in my area, there has been inflation upon inflation in terms of how much your degree is worth, so it therefore isn’t surprising people want to do them.


  4. The way taxes are spent (and collected) is inefficient. It is not only this policy but most other spending of governments. The bureaucratic systems are designed to account for the money and not to worry too much about the outcomes. It is assumed that if the money is spent then it will be spent wisely.

    The fundamental problem is that spending of taxes is “command and control” approach rather than a market approach. However, we can spend taxes using markets and make enormous productivity savings by a few changes to the way we distribute the control of spending. In simple terms we give the money to the people who benefit from the expenditure but require them to spend it on a choice of goods and services.

    See a description of a system for reducing green house gases but the same principles can be applied to the spending of all taxes.


  5. Andrew, I agree with the bulk of your post, but there are recent figures in the press that suggest HECS is becoming a DISincentive, and therefore, Rudd’s proposals for maths/science have some merit, but I argue it needs fine-tuning (although I doubt you’ll agree with my lefty extensions).

    I haven’t heard anything from Rudd on improving the knowledge economy in the private sector. I found a VoxEU post here and discussed here that argues that a simple change in accounting standards could lead to significant improvement in the knowledge economy by improving the way R and D expenditure is valued by the market.


  6. Dave – I’ve never seen a compelling case that HECS is a problem. The only recent figures have been the initial university applications, which show a slight dip on last year. I haven’t seen the detail, but as I understand it the dip is mostly mature-age students – the people least likely to go to university when jobs are plentiful.


  7. 10 years ago, the competition to obtain an APA was intense (fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones!) I recall the “concensus” at the time was that you had to have a good first class Honours degree to have a real chance of an APA.


  8. Affirmative action to promote women in academia. There was one APA in politics at Monash the year after I did Honours. I had the equal highest mark with a woman, and it was pretty clear she would get it if we both applied. I got one at ADFA instead.


  9. Boris – It’s not that hard to get a PhD place funded by the Commonwealth (no tuition charge). But at most institutions getting an income-support APA is pretty competitive.

    Not in my experience. But nowadays for us it is not an issue, for our domestic demand for pHd places from our own undergraduates has been exactly zero for some time.


  10. Boris: we have essentially a limitless supply of domestic applicants for ours, so it is really area dependent. You guys need to make your courses worse to create a bit of degree inflation, and you’ll get them too 🙂

    Andrew: Do the affirmative action policies in universities still exist? I would think it is crazy these days given 60% of university students are now female. I’m sure in 20 years time after everything has propagated through we will have just the opposite problem (if you really think it is a problem). One odd thing is that these sorts of policies now get onto the administrivia side of things for some areas. I know from reviewing US NSF grants that they actually want more minority group reviewers (and the same is true for my area for some journals I do reviews for), which seems really odd, because it takes heaps of time, you do it for free, and you get essentially nothing out of it (especially if you are not in the US and can’t even claim to be somehow “in the sytem”!). So affirmative action actually curses you in this case.


  11. Conrad – I’m not sure how widespread formal policies are, but it is definitely still an issue – only last year the VCs signed up to an ‘action plan’ (pdf) to increase the proportion of female senior staff. Academic feminists have the men very well house-trained. This along with too much of the salary budget going to pay women to change nappies while on maternity leave, makes universities relatively unattractive for potential male employees.

    I have slightly suffered from ‘gender equity’ policies, though not by having my career blocked. My problem was that for a while I was the only male member of staff in my area able to sit on selection committees, and the rule that no selection committee could be entirely of one sex meant that I had to be the token male when my female colleagues were quite capable of making good decisions without me.


  12. The action plan seems like more waffle to me flicking through it — it might been a good idea in 1965, but it isn’t now, but then I guess that’s where I imagine those people are stuck mentally.
    Where I work we now have paternity leave as well, because too many men people complained. Alternatively, sabbatical leave has become almost impossible to get, which means everyone with a decent research record that wants to get stuff done now and then needs to look for a new job (including me — I wish the US dollar hadn’t collapsed or I’d be gone tommorow) or have kids! Perhaps I can become a sperm donor — I could plan to have one every six months for the next 20 years and never have to work.
    I also have exactly the same problem as you in terms of having a token male on committees and interviewing panels (even if token male doesn’t know the foggiest about the area — too bad I can’t read papers through interviews as a protest). Being the only minority group in my department, I’m glad they don’t (yet) have to have at least one non-white on the panels. That would really be annoying. I can imagine that happening if someone complains, which I believe was one of the reasons token male has to be at least at interviews now.


  13. conrad

    Re parental leave, can you imagine a time when child-free academics will demand access to similar leave to nurture those personal goals they have chosen in lieu of children?


  14. I have just seen that the ALP plan to strip $37 million over fours out of the Carrick Institute. So they are actually going to take money away from teaching research in Universities.


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