The sociology of the climate change debate

John Quiggin and other vigilant bloggers swarmed on this climate change ‘denialist’ article by American historian Arthur Herman, who was in Australia recently as a guest of the CIS (to talk about the Enlightenment rather than climate change).

Quiggin argues that ‘just about everyone on the political right [has signed] up to a set of beliefs that are dictated entirely by political tribalism’.

This is a little tough but tribalistic explanations surely explain much – on both sides of the debate. Very few people are in any position to assess the science, and so the issue has to be judged via various heuristics, such as expert views, personal observation and experience (a long drought), and the views of other members of one’s social group. These heuristics help explain why an emissions trading scheme has majority support despite minimal public knowledge of even what it is, much less an informed personal assessment of whether or not it is likely to work.

It would not have been hard to guess what preconceptions someone like Arthur Herman would bring to this issue. In the 1990s he published a book called The Idea of Decline in Western History, which gives us 400 pages of prophets of doom before it even gets to environventalism. To Herman, the climate change apocalyptics must look like just another in a long line of doomsayers, with the same (minimal) prospects of being proven right.
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Do law students outnumber lawyers?

“I was under the impression that there were as many people in law schools as there are lawyers.”

commenter Conrad, 14 August 2008.

This factoid has been around for a long time. As long ago as 1996 an article (pdf) could open by saying that

we are often reminded of the startling fact that there are more students currently studying to be lawyers than there are lawyers practising law,

though it did not actually examine whether that assumption was true.

Working out how many law students we have is not straightforward. The published student statistics report for law only in ‘load’, which means units of study coded as law. People who are not enrolled in law degrees do law subjects, eg commerce students take business law units. But with this caveat, in 2007 law units were equivalent to 24,979 full-time undergraduate students. Another way of estimating numbers is through the offers and acceptance data. In 2008, 5,672 persons accepted a place in a law course. But none of these numbers can account for JD programs, which are professional entry qualifications taught as postgraduate degrees (for which universities can charge full fees – expect to see these expand as the government’s ban on undergraduate full-fee places starts to bite).
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Will markets foster higher education diversity?

One of the more curious claims made in submissions to the higher education review is that markets will drive homogenisation rather than diversity. In my submission (pdf), I identify four market design problems that I believe limit diversity:

* access of foreign-owned providers to the FEE-HELP loan scheme is made very difficult (I expand on this here)

* Commonwealth-supported places are not available to most private providers of higher education

* student contribution amount regulations means that all public universities have to operate at the bargain-basement end of the market (though the effect of this has been alleviated somewhat by international student fees)

* a rigid quota system of allocating student places limits the scope for disciplinary specialisation
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Should scholarships be exempt from Centrelink income tests?

One popular theme in the submissions to the Bradley review of Australian higher education policy is that scholarships paid by universities ought to be exempt from Centrelink income tests. The problem is that if the scholarship gives a student on Youth Allowance more than $118 a week it will be caught by the YA income test, and so the scholarship saves the government 50c in the YA dollar. The universities reckon that this provides a disincentive to provide income-support scholarships.

While the frustration of universities is understandable, there should be no special treatment of scholarship income. The main function of scholarships is positional competition between universities. Mostly they compete for the very bright students. Often these students come from privileged backgrounds, but even when they do not their high intellectual ability means that they are likely to do very well in life whether they get a scholarship or not. The public policy case for sending special extra financial rewards their way, through exempting them from welfare reductions that all other students must suffer, is very weak. Indeed, exemption would be a particularly egregious example of the generally regressive nature of higher education subsidies. Continue reading “Should scholarships be exempt from Centrelink income tests?”

Could we have a real ‘education revolution’?

Submissions to the Bradley review of higher education policy are now appearing on the DEEWR website. As a veteran of such reviews – this is the third comprehensive review I have been involved with in just over a decade – my expectations of its outcomes are modest. I have two failures behind me.

But in The Weekend Australian yesterday there was some sign that the government is thinking seriously about the structural issues that keep the education system so far below its potential. In a page one story, they report a proposal to use federal incentive payments to get funding for vocational education to be based on student demand (aka vouchers) rather than institutional grants.

If vocational education, why not higher education? There are no states to deal with, just a Senate in which Labor would get an overwhelming majority if a party that has no ideological grounds for opposing student choice voted with it (despite its failure to implement it while in office).

I’ve yet to read more than a handful of submissions to the review, but both the University of Melbourne submission (pdf) and my own submission (pdf) explain how the current system of centralised allocation is highly dysfunctional.
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HECS deters theory fails to predict, again

…we can be pretty confident that the significant increase in the number of places in the last few years will continue to increase low SES shares of commencing students. There is a leading indicator of this in the statistics on accepted offers by Year 12 score, with the below-70 group continuing to increase its share of the total.

– my prediction of 17 July.

Fortunately, not one for the ‘corrections and clarifications’ category. As predicted, the 2007 ‘equity’ enrolment data released today (in the ‘appendices’) shows that low SES commencing students are indeed up between 2006 and 2007. Overall, the increase is about 5%.

Unfortunately more detailed comparisons between 2006 and 2007 are complicated, because the definition of low SES – a postcode in the bottom 25% – changes with each census. The total numbers for earlier years have been recalculated with 2006 census data, but not the institutional numbers.

Changes in the private provider category have also complicated things – not only are more institutions listed as they acquired access to FEE-HELP, but these providers are now reporting all students, not just those getting FEE-HELP. If I revise upwards their 2006 low SES numbers by the overall upward revision (just under 1%), the absolute number of low SES commencing students recorded at private providers is up by about 380, but the percentage of all their commencing enrolments who are low SES has declined by 1.1% to 11.8%.
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Should the state re-write relationship rules?

On the one hand, the federal government continues to block marriage-like ceremonies for gay couples who want one. But on the other hand, it is planning to impose marriage-like financial responsibilities on gay couples – and opposite-sex couples – even if they don’t want them.

In an SMH opinion piece against this change, University of Sydney law academic Patrick Parkinson explains the change this way:

The big difference [between married and de facto], in NSW at least, is that the courts only divide the property [of former de facto partners] based on an assessment of the parties’ contributions to that property (including contributions as a homemaker and parent). For married couples, the court also looks at the future needs of each partner and their financial resources.

As Parkinson argues, there are good reasons why couples might want to choose not to get married, and as a result have fewer legal protections, but also fewer legal risks. They might not be sure that the relationship is long-term (de facto couples have much higher rates of relationship breakdown than married couples). They might be legitimately protecting the interests of other parties, such as the inheritances of children from previous relationships or, in Parkinson’s example, inheritances from other relatives who may have intended to keep the money in the family (though those people could use trusts to help avoid the money falling into the wrong hands).
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