Should the whole censorship regime be relaxed?

There is plenty of negative reaction across the ideological spectrum to Stephen Conroy’s internet censorship plans. You can go to the Fairfax website to cast your vote on it.

I agree that Conroy’s plan should be rejected entirely. But though there are special concerns that the Conroy firewall will catch innocent material and slow the internet, what it is essentially trying to do is enforce the existing censorship regimes (state and federal). If these regimes are worth having, then trying to enforce them is not ridiculous in principle, and the debate is just about the technical issues.

I’m not going to mention in any detail the contents that lead films to get the RC (Refused Classification) rating that Conroy is targeting, as it will cause my blog to get caught by the voluntary filters some firms, homes and public computers use. But you can read them at this link. Some of the sexual material that is banned is gross, but I am not convinced it should be censored. Another more extreme classification could guide consumers of standard X-rated films away from practices they don’t want to see.

This is an opportunity for a broader debate about the role of government in deciding what Australians can and cannot see.

Government confident unis will accept a bad deal

DEEWR’s latest higher education newsletter, published today, mostly summarises prior announcements. But there was one statement worth noting:

The Government will announce the details of the review of base funding levels in 2010. While it is for the review to consider the appropriate level of base funding, … early estimates of over enrolments for Commonwealth supported places in 2010 suggests that universities will increase their number of Government funded places while being funded at current rates.

What this effectively says is that the government does not need to increase per student funding rates because universities will be stupid enough to keep enrolling more students even while the government keeps slashing their real funding.

I despair at the lack of political strategy and skill in the higher education sector.

Classical liberals and political parties

Commenter Ute Man asks

At what point would Andrew Norton abandon the Liberal party …. Surely the Abbott inspired lunacy that encouraged Barnaby Joyce to publically voice his CEC conspiracies was a breaking point for anybody who even pretended to be rational. … Surely, at this point, it is impossible for the “last classical liberal” to deny the four-square conservatism (or idiocy, I can’t decide) of Abbott and his unannounced, unfunded policies to continue to support this party. Or are you just another prisoner to tribalism?

I’ve had many questions like this over the years. After all, in the thirty or so years that I have been a Liberal supporter the party has stood for the Australian Settlement minus the White Australia policy (Fraser), vacuous soft-right progressivism (Peacock), suburban conservatism (Howard), free-market liberalism (Hewson), upper-class conservatism with bad jokes (Downer), everything-depending-on-what-day-of-the week-it was (Nelson), market-leaning social liberalism (Turnbull) and now Tony Abbott’s big government conservatism. At the state level, the party often seems to stand for nothing at all, or at least there is no theme I can extract from their ad hoc point scoring against Labor.

Clearly for those – like much of the Australian Left – who see politics as self-expression, as part of showing what kind of person they are, this ideological variety would be intolerable. Indeed, with this view on politics involvement with any major party would be impossible, since both major parties are ‘broad church’ institutions incorporating a wide range of interests and beliefs. Which group is most dominant, or at least most obvious, will change over time with their numbers in the party, their skill, the political cycle, and luck. Continue reading “Classical liberals and political parties”

Unions defend Australian democracy

I don’t find many positive things to say about Australian trade unions, but full marks to them for standing in the way of an anti-democratic and anti-competitive deal between the major political parties to nobble their ‘third party’ opponents.

The precise content of the deal being negotiated between government and opposition has not been revealed, but from The Age‘s report it includes bans on union and corporate donations and

the legislation would also have severely limited third-party advertising campaigns such as the one the ACTU ran against WorkChoices at the last federal election.

Understandably, the unions were not at all happy about this and appear to have vetoed the proposal within the ALP. As one ‘source’ says: Continue reading “Unions defend Australian democracy”

Party polarisation on global warming

The latest Morgan Poll on global warming, taken in early December, shows very similar results to the 11-12 November poll. 31% (up 1%) say that concerns about global warming are exaggerated, 50% (down 2%) say that if we don’t act now it will be too late, and 14% (unchanged) say it is already too late.

Though a month is a short time period for public opinion to change, three things have happened that might have affected the results. The first is that the local debate about the ETS and the run-up to the Copenhagen conference have raised the issue’s profile, so more voters may have engaged with the debate and formed or changed their opinion. The second is that ‘Climategate’ has given the sceptics momentum. And the third is that with the Opposition moving to a clear rejection of the ETS, the issue may have picked up more partisanship than before (ie, partisans will go with their party).

Of these possibilities, the Morgan Poll provides most support for the last. Since the November poll, the proportion of Liberals saying that concerns are exaggerated has gone up 5 percentage points to 51%. However, the proportion of Labor respondents saying that concerns are exaggerated went down 4 percentage points to 14%. Though we can’t rule out some issue salience or Climategate effects, these changes look most like the issue becoming even more polarised on party lines.

Should unis ignore the government’s peformance funding?

Though the federal government plans to stop telling universities how many students to enrol in which disciplines, its plans for university ‘performance funding’, detailed today, show that the urge to micromanage doesn’t go away, it just shifts to different areas.

There will be new targets for enrolment of low SES students, retention rates, pass rates, overall and teaching satisfaction, students’ self-assessed generic skills, employment and further study outcomes, with warnings of other possible future indicators to replace the more manifestly inadequate on this list. Two of these – a new ‘University Experience Survey’ for first years and wider use of the Graduate Skills Assessment test – would involve additional form filling-in and testing for students.

The targets will be adjusted to the circumstances of each institution, so ‘success’ against the targets is likely to depend as much on the skill of the university negotiators in getting easy targets as anything subsequently done to achieve them.

Though the goals may sound good, this is not necessarily the case. Continue reading “Should unis ignore the government’s peformance funding?”

Government spending on higher education

A commenter asks about how much Australia spends on higher education.

The main source for this is the DEEWR portfolio budget statement (outcome 3), with the DEEWR Annual Report also containing useful information. After taking out money coming from the Education Investment Fund, the budget for direct grant spending on higher education for 2009-10 is about $5.6 billion. Information on government subsidies per student by field of study can be found in the ‘further resources’ section of this site for university administrators.

More historical data (latest 2008) on funding for individual universities is available in the annual university finance reports. Unfortunately DEEWR has ceased timely publication of the previously annual higher education report so it is very difficult for the general public to find information on arrangements for a particular university.

However information on direct grants understates total higher education related spending. Continue reading “Government spending on higher education”

Do ‘social returns’ justify higher education subsidies?

In his Henry tax review paper, Andrew Leigh says:

The principle that education subsidies should be increased (or graduate taxes decreased) if there is a social return to education fails to hold only in very special circumstances.

These ‘special circumstances’ are that

1. Subsidies or taxes would be ineffective, i.e. would not increase educational attainment.
2. Everyone is already getting the maximum level of education.
3. Lumpy investments, e.g. where the optimal level might be 1 year of post-compulsory education but only 3-year degrees can be purchased.

But is circumstance 1 really so ‘special’? As noted in an earlier post Andrew’s empirical evidence suggests that circumstance 1 may common rather than special. Continue reading “Do ‘social returns’ justify higher education subsidies?”

How education subsidies can reduce educational participation

In a paper for the Henry tax review on the impact of the tax-transfer system on education and skills, Andrew Leigh concludes:

Contrary to theoretical predictions, I find no significant evidence that more
generous [educational] subsidies or lower tax rates on the rich have the effect of raising educational participation.

The economics of human capital provide the contradicted theories. Human capital economics assumes that the decisions of potential students are sensitive to the private financial benefits of investing in education. If these benefits are made higher, then all other things being equal we will see more people invest in education.

One way of increasing private benefits is to offer subsidies, or more subsidies where they exist already. If part of the cost of education is met by subsidies (mostly from the taxpayer, but also from private philanthropy) lower future private financial benefits will be needed to earn an adequate rate of return on the educational investment. The justification for this is that there are positive ‘externalities’, or spin-off benefits, from having more educated people. Continue reading “How education subsidies can reduce educational participation”