Are book reviewers softer than movie reviewers?

I was intrigued last November by this Marginal Revolution post on why music reviews tend to be positive, compared to film reviews. I was particularly interested in a comment comparing film and book reviews:

Book reviews are generally positive because reviewers frequently have a choice of which book of several to review, and choose to read books they expect to like, and then to give publicity to ones they enjoyed (knowing that there’s no such thing as bad publicity). It seems like there is a three-step process:
1. Is this book likely to be worth my time?
2. Read it. Is this book worth writing about?
3. Write a review.
Movie reviews basically have to cover all releases in a week, so there is no such filtering out of bad products.

My perception is that book reviews tend to be softer than movie reviews, but I had a different theory: that for social reasons people in the relatively small literary community are reluctant to give negative reviews to people they are likely to meet, if they don’t know them already. As the vast majority of reviewed films are foreign, this is less of a problem in movie reviewing.

A friend who is a part-time literary critic made a related point, that many book reviewers are actual or aspiring book writers themselves, while few movie reviewers have made or are likely to make a film. There are several reasons why this may lead book authors to be softer reviewers: they don’t want to provoke negative reviews of their own work, compared to a critic less of their reputation with readers relies on providing good advice to book buyers (which could lead to lower quality of reviewing overall, not just in being soft), and having been through the pain of writing themselves may just feel sorry for authors, even if the book isn’t much good.
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Two voucher schemes, ten years apart

Julia Gillard’s part response this week to the Bradley report had me casting my mind back to an unscheduled, and rather more dramatic, higher education policy launch on 13 October 1999. On that day Labor ambushed my then boss, David Kemp, with a leaked copy of his Cabinet submission to reform the higher education system. I was his higher education adviser, and reform like this was why I was in politics.

In two respects, there are close parallels between the two launches. Both proposed a voucher scheme, but neither wanted to call it that. In the Kemp plan, it was a ‘universal tuition subsidy’. In the press clippings I have kept of the time, the voucher scheme in itself did not attract much controversy. There were a couple of the usual claims about regional campuses, but most of the voucher criticism focused on an alleged broken promise not to introduce such a scheme.

But there the differences end. While Gillard immediately ruled out any increase in fees, most of the 1999 controversy surrounded the plan to uncap fees (though there was some confusion in the media, with full fees being muddled with deregulated fees).
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Gillard adopts Bradley report, with its main flaw

When yesterday I admired Julia Gillard’s chutzpah in stating that her voucher scheme isn’t a voucher scheme I did not expect anyone would believe it. But she has shown that if you spin brazenly enough people will believe you. Not only does the SMH buy Gillard’s non-existent distinction without negative comment, it adds an embellishment in its favour that is not in the published version of Gillard’s speech:

Ms Gillard said the change in funding model was not the student voucher system advocated by Professor Bradley.

Alas, it is exactly the voucher scheme advocated by Denise Bradley, with a slightly later starting date. Gillard has ruled out deregulating HECS price caps, leaving the system entirely reliant on the government subsidy creating the prices per student place that will be the incentives to drive a demand-driven system. For reasons explained in my recent CIS paper, I have no confidence that this will occur. Like Bradley, Gillard shows no sign that she understands this issue, much less that she has a solution to it.

At least Monash VC Richard Larkins was alert to one consequence:

Richard Larkins said abolishing caps on student numbers, while retaining them on the HECS amounts universities charged, could create “perverse incentives” to enrol more international or postgraduate students, who are not subject to price caps.


PJ O’Rourke finally coming to Australia

I first came across PJ O’Rourke in 1987, via an hilarious review of a book by Jimmy Carter in the American Spectator (then a witty Tory magazine, not the Clinton-hating rag it became in the 1990s). Vindicating his harsh judgment, the Carter book now sells second-hand for $3.98. This review led me to his also-hilarious Republican Party Reptile and many other good books over more than 20 years.

He’s finally coming to Australia, a little later than originally planned via cancer treatment, to give the annual CIS John Bonython Lecture.

He’ll speak in Sydney on 21 April and in Perth on 28 April. I’m not sure if I have any New Zealand readers, but he will speak in Auckland on 30 April. (For east coast Australian readers with lots of frequent flyer points, note the arbitrage opportunity in the Auckland dinner.)

When a voucher isn’t a voucher

More later on the first instalment of Julia Gillard’s response to the Bradley report, which includes accepting the recommendation to ceate an uncapped demand-driven scheme, but her speech to the Universities Australia conference contains this gem:

Let me be clear about one important point: this is not a voucher.

Students will not be receiving a set dollar entitlement to be redeemed at an institution of their choice. Rather, there will be a Commonwealth payment to universities – with the amount varying depending on the course – on the basis of student numbers.

The core idea behind ‘vouchers’ is that public subsidies be allocated on a market basis.

The actual choice of technology – distributing bits of paper called ‘vouchers’ or cards (like Medicare) or a report-and-audit system with suppliers (as with private schools) – is a management decision, and not fundamental to the underlying idea. Where the eligible persons are easily identified, such as any Australian citizen or permanent resident in the case of schools and Gillard’s proposed higher education system, report-and-audit is likely to be the cheapest and therefore the best option. Nobody wants pointless distribution of bits of paper from Canberra (except maybe DEEWR, experts in bureaucratic make-work).

Nor is the idea of a flat amount intrinsic to the idea of a voucher, though if it is to be a subsidised though otherwise undistorted market like cases should be treated alike. For example, in Medicare there is a higher rebate for specialists than GPs, but no government steering between specialists or between GPs. The private school system is an impure voucher scheme, because public schools receive much higher per student subsidies than private schools for teaching the same things. It looks like Gillard is proposing a pure voucher scheme for higher education, with subsidy depending on course of study rather than institution.
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Low SES students and the Group of Eight

According to a report in today’s Australian, the

Group of Eight research universities are tough institutions for disadvantaged students to get into, but they are not, according to a surprising new study, the toughest of the lot: that dubious honour goes to the University of Canberra.

Of course, the University of Canberra is not especially tough for anyone to get into. You can do a Bachelor of Business at the University of Canberra on an ENTER/UAI of 65. It charges the same prices as any other university for a Commonwealth-supported place. The reason it has few low SES students is that low SES is defined as being in the bottom 25% of Australian postcodes according to an index of education and occupation, and Canberra being full of university-educated professionals working in the public service it has no such postcodes. No matter how poor you are, if you live in the ACT you are not ‘low SES’ by this measure.

For the Group of Eight (the ANU aside), locational issues are less important than academic issues. Relatively few people from low SES backgrounds get the scores needed to go to these universities. From research I have seen on Victorian and NSW universities, the Group of Eight get the vast majority of the small number of people from low SES postcodes with strong results. But because they are few in number, they are not a large percentage of all Group of Eight enrolments.
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