Gavin Brown, RIP

Being vice-chancellor of a sandstone university does not seem like the path to a long life. First Alan Gilbert died far too young, and now Gavin Brown. He had a heart attack and died after his Christmas lunch, aged 68.

In my time as David Kemp’s higher education adviser in the late 1990s, Brown like Gilbert stood out among the vice-chancellors. Gilbert was an entrepreneur and visionary type, and you always knew what he thought. Brown struck me as a canny character; the Scottish accent and a left eye that did not follow the right distracting you from what he was up to.

Though Brown did what VCs needed to do in the 1990s in pursuing full-fee students – including, controversially, domestic undergradates – in other respects a cigar-smoking, racetrack-going academic seems like someone from another, more leisurely and less ‘performance’ oriented era. We probably won’t see any more people like him leading the top universities.

Gavin Brown, RIP.

The economics of Christmas cards

Commenting on the inefficiency of Christmas gift giving is now almost as much a Christmas tradition as Santa and Christmas trees. The Australia Institute was at it again this year.

But the odd economics of Christmas cards has received less comment. It’s hard to buy cards without contributing to a cause, typically noted on the back of the card. The people who have sent me cards this year have supported: the Australian Red Cross, a British disability charity (promising that money from their cards helps disabled people express themselves through photography and other technology), the Make-A-Wish foundation, the Peter Mac Cancer Centre, the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation, the 1959 Group of Charities (26 charities listed), Kids Helpline and the Smith Family.

And even when you buy a card from a for-profit company there is no escaping your environmental obligations:’This card is made with recycled paper (20% recycled fiber)’, ‘This card is made with paper from sustainably managed forests’, and my favourite this year ‘it’s good to be green – this paper is 30% recycled, processed chlorine free and manufactured with wind energy’, though I suspect they did not use wind energy to transport it from Canada, where it was printed, to Melbourne, where I bought it.

Is all this part of a strategy to get us to pay $5 or more for a bit of card with printing costs of perhaps 50 cents? That we don’t mind paying far too much if we are contributing to a good cause or helping to save the environment? There are many other examples of bundling products with causes or charities – eg fair trade coffee, The Big Issue – but Christmas cards are a rare product line where bundling seems like the norm.

As my family solves the Christmas gift-giving inefficiency by buying from co-ordinated lists everyone has a pretty good idea of what they are going to get, so I want to buy a good card as it is the only real thought I put into the gift. If it’s clever or pretty (for female gift recipients; guys don’t do pretty) I don’t mind paying the price. But sometimes I’d like more of a choice just to buy the card, without the charity or cause.

A case for voting Labor in NSW?

Today’s Newspoll, as reported in The Australian, shows NSW Labor’s support at a catastrophic 24%, having hovered around a quarter since the middle of the year.

Certainly they deserve to lose.* But even as a Liberal supporter, I am not at all sure that a Labor wipe-out would be a good thing – and NSW’s own political history shows why.

After a modest defeat and loss of minority government in 1995, in 1999 the NSW Liberals went down to bad defeat, with a swing of 10% and a loss of 13 seats. This combined with factional and other problems severely undermined their credibility as an alternative government.

Effectively, in delivering devastating blows to major political parties voters risk severely constraining their choices at the next election, and quite possibly (as in NSW) another one after that. So even if they are unconvinced of the government’s merits – in 2007 a NSW Galaxy poll found most people did not believe Labor deserved to be returned – they don’t vote them out.

Due in part to the severity of the 1999 Liberal defeat, NSW has endured four more years of a government that was by 2007 already tired and under-performing. If Labor gets anything like the vote the current polls suggest, in 2015 and 2019 NSW voters may again face the dilemma of a government that needs to go but an opposition that does not yet seem ready to arrive.

* Except my friend Sacha Blumen, running against Clover Moore in Sydney. I have never forgiven Clover for her role in bringing down Nick Greiner.

A Google measure of ideological fashion

Brendan Duong points me to another Google innovation, a new way of tracking mentions of words and terms in books, using the huge archive of scanned books in Google Books. It can be used to track ideological fashion and interest over time.

In the easy to use version (there is a complicated-looking raw data download option) some care has to be taken with interpreting the results. For single words it is calculated as a % of all ‘unigrams’ or single words, for two-word phrases it is a % of all ‘bigrams’ or two-words. So percentages will always be lower for bigrams than unigrams, and I won’t directly compare them.

And because we are looking at percentages of all words in the category, a term could be rising in absolute mentions but still declining relatively.

Over the 150 years to 2000, we can see the changing fortunes of the three main Western ideological forces: socialism, liberalism, and conservatism. The interest of intellectuals in socialism is very evident here. Despite socialism entering a long decline in the 1980s, in 2008 it was still more mentioned slightly more often than liberalism. And despite the apparent ideological revival of conservatism, it trended slightly down from the 1960s.
[19/12: graphs and text updated to take account of later data]

Continue reading “A Google measure of ideological fashion”

DEEWR gaffe in incoming government brief

Perhaps because departments know that incoming government briefs are subject to FoI they are mostly pretty uninteresting. DEEWR’s is largely a bland summary of current policy.

But there was one small gaffe that amused me. Among the ‘fronts’ on which the Department is promising ‘effort’:

‘drafting and introducing legislation to enable compulsory student union fees’

The government’s language has otherwise emphasised student ‘services’ and ‘amenities’ rather than student unions. In introducing the latest bill to Parliament, Peter Garrett said:

Let me be clear—the bill is not a return to compulsory student unionism.

The truth is somewhere in between. Under the bill, there need not be a student union. But there is nothing stopping a university from funding one, and in draft guidelines there are requirements that there be democratically elected student representatives, that universities provide resources to these representatives, and consult them on use of the amenities fee.
Out of the incoming government brief, the media picked up on a point I made back in August , that there would be a $20 billion plus price tag to the Green promise to abolish student tuition fees and write of the HELP debt. Fortunately this insanity will be ignored by the ALP.

Low-tax egalitarianism?

The latest issue of Policy has an article by former Costello adviser Dave Alexander defending what he calls Australia’s low-tax egalitarianism.

Compared to other OECD countries Australia’s tax-welfare system combines a relatively low tax take with relatively egalitarian outcomes because benefits are more targeted on lower-income earners. Australia also has unusually high rates of voluntary opt-out from full government entitlements, with many people taking partially subsidised private options in education and health.

For Alexander, this policy mix helps Australia avoid some of the pathologies and dysfunction associated with either high levels of inequality or over-sized government.

The Catallaxy crowd aren’t convinced. And indeed in publishing the piece I expected some flak from my classical liberal comrades. But I thought the Alexander article was a strong one. In my own political life I have always been torn between my philosophical commitment to smaller government and my pragmatic sense of what it takes to achieve even incremental change towards that goal. Politically, relatively low-tax egalitarianism may be the only viable model we have.

Have higher student:staff ratios been bad for student satisfaction?

An implication in complaints about rising university student:staff ratios is that things are getting worse for students.

We don’t have any measures of student learning, the most important indicator, but we do have from the course experience questionnaire sent to all completing students a series of questions on satisfaction with teaching, which together form the ‘good teaching scale’ (GTS). These questions cover time spent commenting on work, helpfulness of feedback, whether students were motivated to do their best work, how good lecturers were at explaining things, whether lecturers worked hard to make their subjects interesting, and whether staff made an effort to understand difficulties students might be having.

Contrary to what we would expect if SSRs were a major teaching problem, all the GTS scores have improved steadily since 1997, though from a low base. In 1997 on average 39% of completing students gave a clearly satisfied rating to the teaching questions (ie the top two points on a five point scale). By 2009 this was up to 52%. Continue reading “Have higher student:staff ratios been bad for student satisfaction?”

Do uni class sizes matter?

Should we worry that uni student numbers have grown more quickly than academic staff numbers? The history of school research on student:staff ratios suggest that we should be cautious about making lower SSRs a policy priority. Most analysis has found little or no educational benefit in reducing school student:staff ratios. Increased SSRs may be a sign of higher productivity rather than a problem.

Given that uni students are supposed to be more independent learners than schools students, universities (with rare exceptions like the Oxbridge tutorial system) have always used large groups methods of instruction such as lectures. Unis can teach many more people at the same time than schools.

On interesting question is whether if the class expands beyond the size where personal interaction is feasible, does it matter whether there are 100, 200, 300 or more students in the room? If, as the school research suggests, it is teacher quality that matters most to learning it might be better to have the best lecturer teach a class of 300 than to have six not-so-good lecturers take six classes of 50. Continue reading “Do uni class sizes matter?”

Are student:staff ratios a useful university indicator?

Universities often complain about rising student:staff ratios. These rose from around 14:1 in 1990 to around 21:1 in 2007.* By contrast in schools student:staff ratios declined from 15.4:1 to 13.9 to 1.

But what does a student:staff ratio actually mean for teaching in a university context? In schools, a student:staff ratio of 14:1 will often mean just that – than in the average school, there are 14 students for every 1 member of the teaching staff.

In universities that isn’t the case. A student:staff ratio of 21:1 means 21 full-time equivalent students (EFTSL) to each full-time equivalent (FTE) teaching or teaching/research staff member. Due to part-time uni students, there are 1.4 persons for every EFTSL. But due to casualisation of university teaching staff, according to a report in the Higher Education Supplement one staff FTE could be 7 or 8 casuals (they represent about 20% of FTE teaching staff). So on a person to person basis, the university student:staff ratio is likely to be less than 21:1. Continue reading “Are student:staff ratios a useful university indicator?”