From one Soviet-style policy to another

In a particularly bad day for long-suffering university administrators, Julia Gillard yesterday joined Kim Carr in piling on the bureaucracy. Though she did not say so directly in her speech to the AFR higher education conference, she clearly intends to follow the Bradley report recommendation to impose institutional enrolment targets for low SES students, which will cumulatively meet a national target.

By 2020, 20% of university undergraduate enrolments are to be of low SES students. She says the current figure is ‘around 16%’. Though it sounds about right, I can’t verify this because this number is not currently reported (it is for all students, but not for undergraduates only).

This is, however, the least of the statistical problems with this target. As I argued in December, even if targets are adopted the denominator should not be total university enrolments. This is a shifting target, in which the most important factor is not low SES enrolments but enrolments of other SES groups. In order for low SES to increase their share of total enrolments their enrolments need to grow more quickly than that of other groups. Substantial improvements in low SES enrolments are not in themselves enough.

Short of engaging in class discrimination against applicants from middle and high SES groups, substantially increasing low SES as a share of total enrolments is going to be very difficult to achieve. Gillard herself notes that the school completion rate for high SES students has room to increase, but to the extent that it does reaching the low SES target would become more difficult.

Within the targeting philosophy, the more sensible target is low SES enrolments as a percentage of low SES persons in the relevant age group (or more sensibly still, as a percentage of the relevant age group who have completed Year 12).

With a 2020 target, we need to keep in mind that the school leavers who will be counted towards that target are already at school. The first years of 2020 will mostly be in Year 2 this year, and the students who will make up the later years will mostly be in Years 3 and 4 now. The literacy results published late last year showed that by Year 3 the kids from low SES backgrounds are already well behind their high SES contemporaries, especially in the top bands of achievement. For all the billions of dollars that will be poured into schools in the coming decade, I don’t think anyone seriously believes the low SES students will catch up.

And the whole targeting exercise – this and the 40% overall degree completion among 25-34 year olds – is based on the assumption that many more graduates are required, when even on our current 32% attainment more than a quarter are in jobs that don’t need degrees.

Gillard looks like she will replace one Soviet-style bureaucracy managing student places with another Soviet-style bureaucracy policing production targets, with little regard for whether the necessary inputs are available or whether there is any demand for the outputs.

6 thoughts on “From one Soviet-style policy to another

  1. Andrew Norton says:

    This is, however, the least of the statistical problems with this target. As I argued in December, even if targets are adopted the denominator should not be total university enrolments. This is a shifting target, in which the most important factor is not low SES enrolments but enrolments of other SES groups.

    In order for low SES to increase their share of total enrolments their enrolments need to grow more quickly than that of other groups. Substantial improvements in low SES enrolments are not in themselves enough.

    The govt might well raise the LOW SES/TOTAL UNI ENROLLED ratio. There is no doubt a bit of underutilised talent in the ranks of the poor.

    It might even achieve this if the TOTAL UNI ENROLLED/ADULT POPULATION ratio rises. Although this is a bigger ask given that there may be plenty of unaccredited good earners out there with a bit more time on their hands during the recession and a yearn to learn.

    The key here is diminishing marginal returns. The further you push along the LHS of the talent Bell Curve, the fewer the number of likely good students, esp at higher levels of education. So it becomes harder to pick the poorly-hanging fruit, so to speak.

    This assumes that IQ is signgicantly heritable, an assumption supported by the data. But even if IQ is not heritable it is, as you say, probably too late for the most recent cohort of secondary school children to acquire the skills necessary to complet a uni degree.

    Already state govts are battling to get Year 12 completion rates up. The Age reports:

    THE State Government has been warned it faces an uphill battle to keep its promise to boost year 12 completion rates to 90 per cent by next year because not enough has been done to tackle the problem.

    For the past nine years, the Government has pledged to increase the number of Victorian students who complete year 12 or its equivalent to 90 per cent by 2010.

    But with less than a year before the target is supposed to be met — and year 12 completion rates sitting at 81 per cent for 19-year-old students and 88.7 per cent for 20-24-year-olds — the Government’s own research has found it will struggle to achieve its goal unless more is done to prevent students from becoming bored and dropping out.

    But the key variable is not tertiary enrollment, it is tertiary qualification. That is something that cannot be raised by bureaucratic fiat or even affirmative action. Unless we have “special consideration” degrees which will be immediately discounted by employers.

    The most recent study I can get my pixels onto is the OECD 2004 which shows average tertiary ENTRY PARTICICPATION / COMPLETION SURVIVAL / 25-64 ATTAINMENT rates:


    AUSTRALIA: 70% / 67% / 31%
    UK: 52% / 78% / 29%
    USA: 63% / 54% / 39%
    OECD AVG: 53% / 70% / 25%

    These figures show we are doing well by Anglosphere, not to mention OECD, standards. Although our completion rates could perhaps be improved.

    But it makes you wonder how much meat is left on the bone.

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  2. BTW Andrew,

    FWIW, I am something of a re-constructed socialist on the subject of financial regulation, industrial awards, health care provision, ecological sustainment and public utility ownership. A pretty-much populist pov these days.

    However I am slowly coming around to the view that the private sector, strongly supported by properly targeted public financing, might be the best “Service Delivery Platform” for educational industry.

    This is not just because private sector agencies tend to be more customer-oriented and cost-effective. It is also because they inculcate a more community-minded attitude amongst students. Which leads to better citizens.

    This is particularly so in religious schools. But that leads us down the dreaded “moral conservative” track. And liberals, whether Left- or Right-, can never go there, for fear of being socially ostracised in the trendier suburbs, can they now…hmmm?

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  3. Jack – Gillard’s target is consistent with some bell curve effect; that low SES should perform at four-fifths of their parity level. I would not pay much attention to those OECD statistics, since different qualifications structures make international comparisons very inexact.

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  4. I’m sure a few years of failure will make them reconsider their policies (which will no doubt simply be “forgotten”, since I doubt too many of the general public actually care about the state of universities, let alone these targets. I am also starting to think that the Labor party is even worse for anti-intellectualism than the Liberal party, so some will no doubt be happy about it). You can also say anything you want if the goal is 2020 and you don’t expect your government to last that long.
    .
    The other problem they will have is that unless they use
    absolute brute force to achieve their targets, they won’t get anywhere, especially as universities like Melbourne (and presumably many to follow) aim to cut-down their undergraduate intake not increase it. This will make the problem harder, not easier.

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  5. “You can also say anything you want if the goal is 2020 and you don’t expect your government to last that long.”

    This government is awful after 18 months, so I certainly hope they are not there in 2020!

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  6. Jack, there is an argument that it is precisely controlling the socialisation of students (pdf) that leads to government provision of schooling.

    The point here is control, not quality. I would agree that, on both quality of skills provision and more effective and transparent achievement of equality of opportunity grounds, public finance and private provision is better. Alas, despite manifold claims to the contrary, concern for effectiveness in such matters is generally not what motivates activists and policy makes.

    That public provision, by pooling resources and undermining genuine accountability (due to the conflict of interest in regulator also being provider), obscures who is getting what benefits is also a factor: but that is almost always true in any form of public provision.

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