A bloggish debate briefly continues – against Peter Whiteford

At the risk of adding day 7 to the bloggish debate, I want to respond to Peter Whiteford’s comments at Andrew L’s blog. Whiteford says:

My reaction to Andrew N’s first post may seem casual, but it is where is the evidence that Australian public schooling is the sort of disaster that you seem to imply that it is. Are Australian intellectual elites all drawn from private school backgrounds? Does everyone who went to a public school get an inferior education? Does everyone who went to a private school get a superior education? What is the variation in educational achievement by type of school attended, and what other factors apart from type of school have influenced these outcomes? Evidence please.

Actually, I barely mentioned these conventional public-private debates – and not at all in the first post. As a classical liberal, I think there are inherent political and social problems with monopoly education, regardless of how well public schools teach the 3Rs. I was trying to bring out the philosophical differences between Andrew L and myself, which in fact did happen.

He’s happy with state indoctrination (though eventually conceding that public education doesn’t make much if any difference to civics); I’m not. A preference for live-and-let-live in a pluralistic society, rather than trying to get everyone to believe the same things, is one of the oldest ideas in liberalism, and still one worth arguing for in my view.

Consistent with this, surveys of why parents prefer private schools show that values-type issues are high on the list. This is not to say that government schools don’t incuclate values of some sort, but these aren’t necessarily the values parents want taught. We could hardly expect a single system to reflect the diversity of Australia, and it doesn’t.

I have never claimed that all private schools are good; and no advocate of markets is likely to make such a claim (and they should read and think some more if they do). The great systemic strength of markets is that they encourage innovation but also deal with the inevitable failures. The energy of market societies comes from people constantly trying new things, but their efficiency depends on putting aside the ideas that don’t, or don’t any longer, work as well as the alternatives.

A couple of years ago I gave a talk on school vouchers to a Liberal Party meeting. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and said that while she liked the idea of school choice, she was worried that some schools would close. But of course bad schools should close or (in my system) be taken over by people who can do a better job. In the public system, schools hardly ever close because they are bad, and that is one argument against such a system.

Consistent with this, on average private schools get better academic results than government schools, even after controlling for socioeconomic status, a very important influence on student performance. The average is good, but I would be very surprised if that average wasn’t concealing very substantial variations in school performance.

Peter Whiteford also says:

Meanwhile despite an education system in crisis for the past 30 years, Australia has been getting richer and more productive and we still come out towards the top of PISA rankings.

It’s true that compared to other countries we don’t look too bad, but there is an element of OECDitis in this – an assumption that other OECD countries should set the benchmark, when in reality that benchmark may be too high or too low for Australia. PISA showed a substantial tail of under-achievement, and the recent national literacy survey showed the same thing.

I find it a little odd that social democrats are so willing to still defend the institutional status quo in schooling, despite having accepted the benefits of markets in many other areas, and arguing that education is crucial to their social objectives. The public school system isn’t a total disaster, but it isn’t good enough.

60 thoughts on “A bloggish debate briefly continues – against Peter Whiteford

  1. In a libertarian world most economists would have to go and get real jobs… so it’s actually very silly of Sincs & I (and the few others — Alex Robson, Mark Hill, Jason Potts, the few good guys at PC & Treasury etc) to be arguing for free markets.

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  2. ” think what you have failed to get here is that education isn’t a competitive market for most areas, and probably never could be in Aus (science, engineering, anything else expensive). ”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this. Could you please explain in more detail?

    “you also might consider the affect of rules across all univerisites, rather than just individual ones.”

    Not sure what you mean here, either.

    “whilst league tables might be of overall benefit for an individual organization … they are not neccesarily beneficial as a whole”

    The whole is less than the sum of its parts! I don’t understand what you’re saying here, either.

    “Similarly, simply pointing out good managers exist, isn’t pointing out where or how you’d find them.”

    If you already have them, it shouldn’t be too much trouble to find them. You can find others most easily by starting with the current workforce, identifying talent, and giving them training. After that, you’ll just have to go into the labour market to find more, just like every other organisation.

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  3. 1) It is not possible to recoup the costs of a degree from the individuals doing them and still have enough people in certain professions (according to the government). Hence the government is forced to subsidize the degrees to get more people to do them. Because of this (and other reasons), almost no private providers are willing to offer some degrees (say, vs. law, IT, and a few other cheap to run subjects where they are).

    2) Things like league tables (and the even worse older measure DEST points), have caused all (as far as I’m aware) universities in Australia to invest vast sums of money that could have better been spent on something else. However, they are essentially forced to spend the money to get the carrot. Its possible as an individual university to win at this (i.e., get a bigger share of the carrot), but there are far more losers. Since the amount of money is essentially fixed, there would have been far more efficient aways to distribute it. The same appears true of the newer RQF.

    3) We don’t already have them. I’ve never worked at a university with good managment. If you think it is easy to find people experienced in education managment and also good at it (and can get around problems like teachers shortages and so on, which I imagine is almost impossible across all schools without a long term solution), you should start a recruiting service and you’ll make millions.

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  4. 1) I think the starting point of government subsidies to higher education teaching should be a subsidy based on an equal proportion of each course’s cost. So if law cost $10,000 and the government chose a 25% subsidy, the student would be required to pay $7,500. If engineering cost $100,000, the student should pay $75,000 and so on. A deviation from equi- proportionate subsidies would need to be based on evidence that certain courses had a higher or lower share of positive externalities than others. So long as fees could be deferred through a HECS-type mechanism, I don’t see an equity problem. If this led to fewer engineers, then so be it, because the number of engineers being trained would reflect the combination of (i) market wages, being the market’s willingness to pay for engineers and (ii) the subsidy proportion, being the government’s view on the proportion of social (vs total)benefits of engineering education. Either or both of these variables would need to increase if more engineers were to be created.
    As for 2) and 3), it’s hard to assess things like the value of league tables and the availability of good managers when the objectives and drivers of universities are unclear or mixed.

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  5. Conrad, you’ve hit the jackpot.

    Andrew N. has at one time or another dealt with all of these issues in his postings.

    I recommend that you take the time to read through what he has written, think about the solutions that he proposes, and then evaluate them.

    You’ve raised a lot of problems in your comments. I think you should start reading and thinking about some solutions.

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  6. Jeremy: I’ve probably read most of Andrew’s posts. I think some of the university suggestions are a good idea (like allowing universities to charge whatever they feel like, but that’s too political — I have no idea why some universities don’t just become private since they now take so little from the government). Alternatively I don’t think anyone has the solution for the left end of the schools distribution (I think its largely a cultural problem), since its basically a market failure (people arn’t willing to pay, yet the government wants some overall level of education for everyone). Alternatively, I’m sure it certainly isn’t yet more managment, and if anything, things like league tables are negative, since they cause competition to meet numbers not real goals. That’s particularily the case if the amount of money is fixed.
    .
    Rajat: I’m not sure why you would have arbitrary subsidies to begin with — why not allow universities to charge whatever they want (excluding courses paid for by HECS), as all the top univesities do?

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  7. Conrad, I certainly wouldn’t prevent that. My point is that subsidies for higher ed (if they are to exist at all) should not cover a larger proportion of course costs for certain courses than others on the basis of implicit views about the social worth of different courses. If favouritism is to occur, it should occur explicitly on the basis of articulated arguments.

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  8. Rajat: Excluding the overall level of funding (everything at the undergraduate level is subsidized to some extent) and the idea that people have well articulated arguments for it (vs. arguments), that’s essentially what happens now. You get funded differently for different disciplines, with things like arts, which are supposed to be cheap to teach, on the bottom.

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  9. Maybe a shared public education experience helps provide the glue that binds liberal societies. Confining children to the company of their own faith together with regular religious indoctrination – that sure sounds like a recipe for tolerance and understanding!

    Germaine Lindsay attended Rawthorpe High School in Huddersfield. Mohammad Sidique Khan and Hasib Mir Hussain attended South Leeds High School. Shehzad Tanweer attended Wortley High School, also in Leeds.

    All government schools.

    In July 2005 they blew up three trains and a bus in central London.

    Hurray for the, “shared public education experience!”

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