Another OECD factoid

Regular readers will know that I am no fan of the OECD cringe, the belief that OECD averages set a standard that Australia should follow.

But uncritical use of OECD statistics is made even worse by misleading use of OECD statistics. That’s what ANU Vice-Chancellor Ian Young – normally one of the better VCs in his public statements – does in this opinion piece in today’s Age.

Young says:

OECD figures show that public spending on tertiary education in Australia is about 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product. Clearly, this will rise as the system is expanded in coming years. However, the spending compares poorly with Denmark at 1.6 per cent, Sweden at 1.4 per cent, Norway at 1.2 per cent and the Netherlands at 1.1 per cent.

On average, public investment in tertiary education in these countries is twice that of Australia.

It is no surprise that these countries have been able to develop high value-added export industries, despite high production costs and high exchange rates. These countries also have high social cohesion.

But Professor Young doesn’t explain why public funding of higher education leads to positive results that private funding does not. So we should look at private spending as well.

And if we average the total tertiary education spending as a proportion of GDP in the OECD’s figures in these countries what number do we get? An average of 1.5%, exactly the same as Australia’s total.

As a proportion of GDP the Nordic countries do have more public spending on higher education than Australia. But this is a factoid devoid of policy significance.

Australia’s not so large education export industry

Reporting of Julia Gillard’s India trip has regularly mentioned Australia’s ‘$15 billion’ international education industry.

Eighteen months ago I claimed that these figures were inflated, and while I was away last month Bob Birrell offered the most detailed substantiation yet of this argument.

In addition to the point I made about the need to deduct earnings by overseas students while in Australia, he adds that estimates of their spending while here are too high. I think he’s right, though a new survey of international students is needed to arrive at a more defensible number.

Universities Australia boss Glenn Withers wrote an article for the Higher Education Supplement defending the $15 billion figure, but though making a couple of good points it is unconvincing overall.
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Are 5,000 kids a day injured in serious accidents?

I received my 2009-10 White Pages this week, and on the back there is an ad from the Kids Foundation, a charity aimed at reducing preventable injury to children. The ad says:

On an average day 5,000 kids are injured in serious accidents.

This sounded like a lot, so I went to the Foundation’s website looking for a source. None is to be found, though they offer another statistic saying that this results in 100 hospitalisations.

At the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare website I found statistics on hospitalisations but not all injuries. This suggests the hospitalisations figure is conservative – I calculate for 2004-05 an average of 158 hospital admissions a day for 0-14 year olds for injuries or poisonings (though this includes deliberate as well as accidental injuries and poisonings).

But even with this higher number, how serious could the injuries be if only 3% require hospital treatment?

The ABS reports all injuries whether requiring hospital treatment or not, with a quarter of 0-14 year olds reporting an injury in the previous 4 weeks. That’s around a million a month, which would certainly get us to 5,000 a day. On the other hand, a lot of these injuries are minor such as cuts, falls below one metre, and stings – things that are painful at the time but usually do no lasting or major harm. They are a normal part of growing up, not ‘serious accidents’.

The Kids Foundation sounds like a worthy cause, and certainly the super-protective parenting since I was growing up is paying off in greatly reduced death rates for kids. But when I read shock! horror! numbers with no source I get the feeling I am being subject to spin, and become less inclined to support the organisation involved.

If someone can point me to the source of this number, I will of course happily acknowledge it and remove the ‘factoid’ category from the post.

Is Australia the world’s fattest nation?

According to yesterday’s SMH,

Australia has overtaken the US to become the fattest nation in the world, with more than 9 million adults rated as obese or overweight.

But is this true? According to the most recent Australian National Health Survey, 35.4% of Australians over the age of 18 are overweight, and another 17.9% are obese, making 53.3% of us fat. That’s about 7.4 million people.

According to the American National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 66% of Americans are overweight or obese, with 31.4% obese.

Both surveys class people with a Body Mass Index of over 30 as obese, and those with a BMI of 25 or more but less than 30 as overweight.

So while we are a nation of fatties, on these statistics we are still a fair way from being the world’s fattest, our 53% lagging well behind the American 66%.

So where did the SMH claim come from?
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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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Do graduates from private schools earn more?

In The Sunday Age yesterday, there was another article about private school students struggling at university. It was based on the numerous studies (I mention a couple here) which have found that, for a given ENTER score, kids from private schools, and also selective government schools where they have been examined, average slightly lower first-year university marks than kids who have been to government schools.

Though this finding has been repeated frequently enough for it to be regarded as a valid social science generalisation, it is also widely misunderstood as saying that private school students get lower grades at university. I haven’t seen that question specifically answered in research, but given that private school students have much higher median ENTERs that is unlikely to be the case. Though private school students are not as academically prepared as government school students who get the same grades as they do, disproportionately few government school students actually get those matching grades at the end of Year 12.

There is also the problem that the studies are all of first year students. It would not be surprising if the differences narrowed in subsequent years, as private school students adjust to the more self-directed study style at university and learn that university life doesn’t offer quite the same freedom compared to school at they might have first thought.

As an ACER study I blogged on in April found, private school students have a higher rate of actually completing university, though once starting ENTER scores are taken into account there are no significant differences betweens school sectors.

One issue we don’t know much about is the differences between government and private school students after university. I have been trying to do a little research on this using the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes.
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Does the federal government spend more on private schools than universities?

Lesson of the day: don’t say things to journalists relying on memory alone. Yesterday I spoke to a reporter from The Australian, and during the conversation agreed with a claim from University of Melbourne higher education expert Simon Marginson that the federal government spends more on private schools than on universities. That was printed in this morning’s paper.

I had some time ago looked into this oft-repeated claim by the public education lobby and decided that it was defensible but a factoid (meaning 2). It was defensible because if you count only direct subsidies related to tuition then more is spent on private schools than on universities (approximately $5 billion compared to approximately $3.5 billion in 2005). But I deemed it a factoid because private school funding supports more than twice as many students. It is less than surprising that about 1.1 million school students cost more than about 450,000 university students (full-time equivalent).

But I’d forgotten that the university income number did not include research and other grants to universities, which take the spend up closer to $6 billion, or the significant contribution to university cash flow made by student loans, which add in another $2 billion.

So if we looked at total support for universities it is significantly higher than total support for private schools.

In my defence I did dismiss the value of the comparison (which wasn’t reported), and note that there had been a significant recent increase in university funding (which was reported), and the original purpose of the conversation had been to discuss something else entirely, for which I had the relevant spreadsheets open when I returned the call. But I should have said nothing or at least fact-checked myself afterwards. Someone did question my evidence today, and they were right to do so.

The rise of a factoid

Early this month, Labor MP Craig Emerson released some ABS data collated by the Parliamentary Library, using it to argue that

two-thirds of the jobs created under the Howard government have needed a university degree as a prerequisite.

Blogger Tim Dunlop was quick to describe it as a ‘telling statistic’. Victorian Skills Minister Jacinta Allan thinks it is telling too, using it in her complaints that Victoria gets too few university places to match demand for graduates in the labour market, a line repeated in today’s front-page lead story in The Age and on page three of the AFR. (Update: And it replicates itself again in Tuesday’s Age editorial.)

But how good is this number? The Parliamentary Library used these assumptions in arriving at their figure:

Level of qualification has been derived on the basis of the occupations in which people are employed. Hence, persons with degree qualifications or higher are assumed to be either ‘managers and administrators’, ‘professionals’ or ‘associate professionals’; persons with other tertiary qualifications are assumed to be either ‘tradespersons and related workers’ or ‘advanced clerical and service workers’; and persons with school level qualifications are assumed to be persons employed in any of the other occupations.

But when we look at the definitions of these ‘degree qualification’ occupations in the ABS classification of occupations this assumption does not look so sound. For ‘managers and administrators’ the ABS states that most occupations in this group

have a level of skill commensurate with a bachelor degree or higher qualification or at least five years relevant experience (my emphasis)

For professionals, too, the emphasis is on skills commensurate with holding a bachelor degree or above. But for ‘associate professionals’ the assumption is weakest:

have a level of skill commensurate with an AQF [Australian Qualifications Framework, usually taught in the vocational education sector] Diploma or higher qualification or at least 3 years relevant experience.

Indeed, this ‘associate professional’ category isn’t very satisfactory and the new system of occupational classifications developed with the NZ statistics people is discontinuing it, with those previously in it being dispersed to other categories including ‘Technicians and trade workers’, ‘Clerical and administrative workers’ and ‘Community and personal service workers’.

The weakness of the assumption can be seen if we examine the actual qualifications of people in these occupations, which we can do through the annual supplement to the ABS labour market survey reported in Education and Work.

In 2006, nearly 80% of workers classified as ‘associate professional’ did not have a university degree. Among managers, over 60% did not have a degree. Only the professions were principally the preserve of degree-holders, with 70% having a university qualification. Even the overall trend is quite modest. 42% of all workers in these occupations were degree-holders in 1996, and 49% in 2006. So many of the jobs for which we supposedly need degree-holders are in fact filled by people who don’t have one, and probably most of the ‘associate professionals’ and some of the other groups would not necessarily benefit greatly from having one.

I don’t expect my pedantry will do much good in the face of a politically-convenient factoid. You will hear this statistic again and again – but do some mental discounting when it happens. On my calculations, just under half of jobs created in that decade were for degree-holders. As I argued last month working out how many graduates we need is a very complex task, but on my analysis our main problem is the wrong mix of graduates, rather than too few overall.