Should the government’s critics be accountable to it?

I was rather surprised this week to receive a letter, in my capacity as editor of Policy, from the ‘Chief Legal Officer’ of the Australian Electoral Commission. Had I forgotten to vote? No, but it seems I may have ‘failed to focus’ on meeting my obligations under section 314AEB of the Commonwealth Electoral Act.

Indeed, until I came to write my criticisms of Brian Loughnane’s National Press Club speech last month, I had no idea that this provision existed, and even then I did not grasp its full implications.

Section 314AEB requires that any person or organisation spending more than $10,300 in a financial year on ‘political expenditure’ – including expressing views on a political party or candidate, or on an election issue, or on an opinion poll asking about voting intentions – has to report that to the AEC. If that spending threshold is crossed, there are also disclosure requirements on ‘gifts received for political expenditure’.

The AEC has done its best to interpret this as narrowly as possible – whether out of democratic concern or merely a desire to avoid being buried in paperwork I don’t know. The ‘primary or dominant’ purpose of the expression has to be of the kind covered in the Act. So a political or policy opinion piece in a newspaper would be part of their normal activity and not covered, but the publication of the same piece on a website intended to influence the election would be covered. And the issue has to be one ‘likely to affect the outcome of the election’, and not just any issue.

Where there is no public money involved, I don’t see what public interest rationale there could be for requiring such disclosure. Continue reading “Should the government’s critics be accountable to it?”

Would more student income support improve academic results?

In addition, I’m not convinced that if all university students in Australia received free education and enough income support to live comfortably that the majority would spend all that extra time studying.

– backroom girl this morning.

In her doubts, backroom girl goes against some higher education orthodoxy. 43% of Australian students in a survey released last year agreed with the proposition that ‘work commitments adversely affect my performance in university’. The Vice-Chancellors have called for more Youth Allowance to ‘ensure optimal educational outcomes’.

It certainly seems plausible that if students worked fewer hours they might optimise their educational outcomes. But like many plausible-sounding ideas in higher education, the evidence for it is mixed at best.
Continue reading “Would more student income support improve academic results?”

What if the national curriculum was Victoria’s?

The ABS literacy levels by state data published today confirm what the OECD PISA study released in December found – that young Victorians’ literacy levels are well behind what their contemporaries in other states are achieving.

Victoria 15 to 24 year olds are a full 10 percentage points behind (51%/61%) their equivalents in New South Wales in achieving levels 3, 4 or 5 in prose literacy. As I noted when the summary literacy report came out last month,

…level 3 skills [are] regarded as the ‘minimum required for individuals to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work in the emerging knowledge-based economy’.

The Victorians are also behind the Western Australians (57%; WA was slightly ahead of NSW in PISA), the Queenslanders (53%), and are about level with the South Australians (who round from the other direction to be also 51%). Only the Tasmanians on 49% are lower, but they have the excuse of a relatively low SES population.
Continue reading “What if the national curriculum was Victoria’s?”

Another ‘free education’ puzzle

The next issue of Policy is going to run a series of short articles by CIS researchers on social policy myths. I’m writing about the myth that university charges deter students from low-income backgrounds, one which our new leader believes. There is the associated belief that Whitlam’s free education opened the university system. In December 2006 I reported on our now PM and Deputy PM on this subject:

According to Rudd, he “was inspired to improve the quality of and access to education because he was the first member of his family to attend university, largely because of the Whitlam government’s free tertiary education policies.”

Julia Gillard was reported as saying, “…courtesy of the Whitlam government, I then went to university and obtained two degrees. I fear that it is harder today for a girl from a working class background to make that journey than when I was young.”

In a book chapter published last year, ACER researchers Gary Marks and Julie McMillan analysed data from a dozen social surveys conducted between 1984 and 2001 with questions about both the respondent’s education level and his or her parents’ occupational group. Consistent with previous research, they found that working class people in the ‘free education’ cohort born between 1960 and 1969 had much lower rates of university qualification than the HECS cohort born after 1970 (though the oldest in that group would have had at least some free university education).

Though that was unsurprising, something else did seem odd: the 1960-69 free education group had lower overall rates of degree achievement (9.1%) than people born between 1950 and 1959 (11.4%), even though only those born in 1957 or later could have enrolled as school leavers in the Whitlam free education period from 1974 onwards. Continue reading “Another ‘free education’ puzzle”

Should university admission be by lottery?

Back in the 1980s, some on the left used to call for university admission to be conducted by lottery. Anyone who applied for a course would be selected at random. The left thought it would make it easier for working-class people, who do relatively poorly in admissions systems based on academic merit, to go to university.

At the time, I thought lottery selection of university students was a crazy idea. But now I am not so sure, and nor is the University of Sydney medical school, which is considering using a ballot to choose its students.

The University of Sydney’s problem is that the different admissions tests used for medical schools don’t seem better than each other in predicting future academic performance (here is one study, pdf). This is not an isolated issue. Other published studies, based on larger groups of students, have found correlations usually of around .3 or .4 between school and university academic results. That’s a lot more than 0, but also a lot less than 1. Several researchers have found that, for a given Year 12 score, students from standard government schools do better in their first year of university studies than students from private schools and selective government schools.

So if getting the best students is the goal, our admissions systems are only modestly good mechanisms for achieving it. Effectively, there are so many unobserved factors affecting results that, as a means of selecting the best students, our current methods already contain a random element.
Continue reading “Should university admission be by lottery?”