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.
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What is ‘ministerial responsibility’?

It’s been a slow election for open letters and political advertising from worthies, but things have picked up in the last few days. In The Weekend Australian, there was an ad from Doctors for the Environment Australia about, you guessed it, climate change. Last election it was doctors’ wives getting into the fashionable issues, this time it is the doctors themselves.

And this morning we had a blast from the 1970s, with Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser turning up in The Australian‘s letter pages (with the planned-for news coverage as well). Their topic was ‘ministerial responsibility’. ‘In the past two decades,’ they say,

the constitutional principle that ministers should be responsible for the failings of their policy or administration has been seriously undermined. No matter how grave their failings may be, ministers no longer resign.

But in reality there is no such constitutional principle (and who is Fraser to talk about constitutional principles, anyway?). Ministers are responsible in the sense that they must answer questions in the Parliament and elsewhere on their policies and performance, but resignation or replacement of Ministers is a matter of political judgment, not principle.
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The not-always-reliable Oxford Companion to Australian Politics

For the last few days, I have been dipping into The Oxford Companion to Australian Politics, edited by Brian Galligan and Winsome Roberts. It contains over 400 entries on a wide range of Australian political topics. Many of the contributors are good choices: Ian Hancock on the Liberal Party, Murray Goot on public opinion, Galligan himself on federalism, Peter Coleman on political cartoons, Ian Marsh on think-tanks, and Judy Brett on political culture, just to name a few.

But the trouble is that Galligan and Roberts have also chosen as contributors people who are as much activists as academics on their Companion subject. A hardline lesbian feminist like Sheila Jeffreys is not the kind of person you’d ask to give a even-handed account of pornography or prostitution. But at least Jeffreys can tell the difference between fact and opinion, which is more than you can say for some other authors.

Take the ANU’s museum-piece Marxist, Rick Kuhn, who is given the entry for ‘class’. While unlike Clive Hamilton he probably isn’t ignorant of the sociological research on class in Australia, he does ignore it in favour of a straight Marxist account, right down to implicitly predicting revolution:

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Why did the middle class shrink?

In his publication Is the Middle Class Shrinking?, Clive Hamilton writes ‘there does not seem to be any survey evidence on identification with class terms’. We all know Clive is no ordinary leftist, but it is remarkable that he became a leading ‘progressive’ thinker despite clearly having read very little about class. There is lots of research on this, going back nearly 60 years.

This research suggests that the long-term answer to Clive’s question is ‘yes’. Though the proportion of people identifying as ‘middle class’ has been trending upwards since the early 1990s, most of the surveys on class identification between 1949 and 1984 found more middle-class people than a 2005 survey. The one exception was 1965, but it was just 1% lower than the 2005 figure of 50% ‘middle class’.

The curious thing about the apparent shrinking of the middle class is that it occurred while many of the sociological markers of the middle class, such as education and professional or managerial occupations, were showing long-term increases. For example, in 1947, just before the first class survey I have, 12% of workers were in professional or managerial occupations. But in 1949, 54% of people thought that they were ‘middle class’. In the mid-1990s, 31% of workers were in professional or managerial occupations, but overall only 45% of people considered themselves to be middle class.

One possibility is that though compared to the past a higher proportion of people have professional occupations, university education and high income, the relativities have moved with them and so the middle class has not grown. Continue reading “Why did the middle class shrink?”

Who is to blame for interest rate increases?

Evidence this morning adding to what we already have that the economy is neither the electoral asset nor the electoral liability it once was, and that interest rates are not a major political issue.

A Galaxy Poll reported in the News Ltd tabloids asked

If interest rates rise again in the near future, which of the following do you believe is mainly to blame?

The political answer, John Howard, received blame from only 12% of respondents – 17% of Labor voters and 3% of Coalition voters. The other responses were ‘international factors’ (37%), the Australian economy (30%), and the Reserve Bank (14%).

Free to know?

I recently experienced my own little frustration with getting information out of the government. I’m writing a CIS paper on private providers of higher education, and one of the arguments I planned to make was that the FEE-HELP provisions of the Higher Education Support Act 2003 are protectionist, in restricting access to the loans to institutions with their ‘central management and control’ in Australia.

In the course of doing various company searches on private higher education providers, I found that two of them with FEE-HELP access are foreign-owned. Perhaps ‘central management and control’ was being intepreted so broadly that it wasn’t as much of an issue as I thought. I needed to know how it was being defined.

I sent an email to the bureaucrat responsible for this area, asking her how it was defined. A couple of weeks later I received a one-line email from a Departmental media person informing me that ‘central management and control’ was not defined in the Act, ie telling me what I already knew and what had prompted the inquiry in the first place.

If the very useful Report of the Indpendent Audit into the State of Free Speech in Australia (big pdf, short html summaries here) is a guide, my experience is far from unusual. Continue reading “Free to know?”

Propaganda failure

The WorkChoices campaign – for and against – must be the most expensive in Australian political history. But how effective was it?

Last month I argued that perhaps the government’s ‘fairness’ test change and subsequent advertising helped ease concerns among Liberal voters. But the polling data I have been analysing over the last week for a Policy article I’ve been writing on WorkChoices tells us something, I think, about the limits of political propaganda.

All along, the polling on for or against questions about WorkChoices has been stable. Three Morgan Polls between July 2005 and April 2006 found the proportion of voters against the reforms varied by just 0.8%, after taking out those not expressing a view. Just under three-quarters of Morgan respondents with an opinion were against WorkChoices. In five ACNielsen polls, of those offering a for or against opinion, the proportion against varied from 69% to 74%, a very similar result to Morgan.

This suggest that the outline of WorkChoices triggered reactions based on stable aspects of public opinion, and nothing anyone said or did after that changed the basic yes/no position of the electorate.

On more specific aspects of WorkChoices, we do see opinion changing. Continue reading “Propaganda failure”

VSU impact

For all the fuss in the voluntary student unionism debate during 2005, there has been very little follow-up on its consequences. The first sector-wide study of VSU’s impact (which will be available from the Australian University Sport website on 7 November) is reported this morning.

It finds the amenities and service fee/membership fee income for sporting, recreational, social and culture activities dropped from $179 million before VSU to $12 million after VSU. From the perspective of the report’s funders that is clearly bad news, but from the government’s perspective it confirms that few students wanted these services badly enough to pay for them via membership fees. The summary findings do not say how much of that funding loss was made up for from increased direct charges.

My position (pdf) on this issue is unchanged. The separate and compulsory amenities fee is an anachronism; there is no point in itemising the cost of attending university if the student cannot opt-out of purchasing services he or she does not want. Universities ought to be free to sell whatever bundle of services they choose at whatever price they determine; if it is the wrong bundle or the wrong price they will pay a market penalty.
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How rude is ‘bullshit’ in the Tony Abbott sense?

Back in July, I defended the use of the term ‘bullshitting’ in the Harry Frankfurt sense, as connotating that the speaker is indifferent to whether or not he or she is saying is true or meaningful. When politicians have to parrot the party line or offer insincere pleasantries at a function they are ‘bullshitting’.

But how about this from Tony Abbott yesterday:

At the conclusion [of the National Press Club debate], as they shook hands for the cameras, Ms Roxon said: “You can’t even get here on time.”

Mr Abbott replied: “It certainly wasn’t intentional.”

Ms Roxon: “You can control these things, mate. I’m sure had you wanted to, you could.”

Mr Abbott: “That’s bullshit. You’re being deliberately unpleasant. I suppose you can’t help yourself, can you?”

Ms Roxon: “I can’t help myself and you’ve well and truly earned it today.”

That I think is ‘bullshit’ in the more conventional usage. It’s an accusation of talking nonsense with connotations of unpleasant bodily discharges to make it more offensive.
Continue reading “How rude is ‘bullshit’ in the Tony Abbott sense?”