The rise and reproduction of meritocracy

Australians like the idea of meritocracy – the idea that rewards should allocated on the basis of ability and effort. Meritocracy is often contrasted with rewards being based on luck or privilege. In an unmeritocratic society, rewards go to people who are already privileged.

Some overlapping questions from the Australian component of the 1992 International Social Science Survey and the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes let us see how perceptions of opportunity in Australia have changed.

The question are about ‘opportunities for getting ahead’, and ask how important various characteristics are. Most Australians see race and gender as ‘not very important’ or ‘not important at all’ for getting ahead. Indeed, there has been a dramatic change in perceptions of how important race is in getting ahead. Continue reading “The rise and reproduction of meritocracy”

Who should get the sandstone premium?

In The Australian yesterday Australian Catholic University VC Greg Craven argued against deregulation of student contribution amounts.

I’ll leave his equity and participation arguments for another day. But part of Craven’s objection is that he thinks the Group of Eight universities will be able to charge more than other unis, and he doesn’t like that idea.

Craven’s main argument seems to be that though Group of Eight universities argue for more funding on the basis of teaching quality, there is no guarantee that additional fee revenue will in fact be spent on teaching. Instead, Group of Eight unis will charge more because of their historical prestige and spend some of the money on other things, especially research.

Fees charged to international students certainly suggest that there is sandstone premium. I did a quick comparison of 2010 international fees in five sandstones (UQ, USyd, UMelb, UAd, UWA) and seven lower-prestige institutions (Victoria Uni, UWS, USA, ECU, Canberra, ACU). The sandstone premium ranged from 10% in education to nearly 80% in commerce/business courses. Continue reading “Who should get the sandstone premium?”

Schools and status competition

Ross Gittins thinks that subsidising private schools means subsidising wasteful status competition.

A persistent line of social criticism argues that status competition is wasteful when people pay a premium for something that is not functionally superior but confers greater social status. Gittins uses the example of a a BMW versus a ‘perfectly satisfactory’ Toyota.

The public school lobby endlessly obsesses over a fairly small number of genuinely high-status schools – Sydney Grammar, MLC, Scotch, Ascham etc. Perhaps trying to get your kid into one of these is ‘status competition’ – though it could be just ensuring your kids get the same high standard of facilities at school that they get at home. Ross has a history of being over-confident in inferring motives from behaviour. Continue reading “Schools and status competition”

Uni equity policy misses the target

Earlier in the year I argued that the governments university equity policy focused on the lowest 25% of people by sociecononomic status was fundamentally flawed.

Using NAPLAN and Victorian Year 12 data I had found that the academic results of the lowest SES 25% (by occupation and postcode respectively) were little different from the second quartile. Consequently, the first quartile was too narrow a focus for policy.

An excellent new paper by University of Melbourne economist Mick Coelli, using higher education participation data from the census and the HILDA survey, puts this conclusion beyond reasonable doubt. Whichever way we look at SES: income, education, occupation or postcode the result is the same – the second quartile is very similar to and perhaps even worse off than the first quartile for their kids getting into university. Continue reading “Uni equity policy misses the target”

Narcissus reflects

The Paul Keating letter to Bob Hawke complaining about his treatment in a book he admits he has not read is classic Keating.

Who else could in the same paragraph say that a true account of the Hawke-Keating years would record ‘how lucky you were to have me drive the government during your down years, leaving you with the credit for much of the success’ and say of Hawke that ‘Narcissus-like you cannot find enough praise to heap upon yourself’?

Keating has many talents, but self-awareness seems not to be one of them.

Actual versus perceived income

Andrew Leigh is reporting on 1999 research showing that many high income earners wrongly place themselves in lower income deciles and many low income earners place themselves in a higher income decile than is justified by their actual income (also cross-posted at Core Economics).

In the past (p.16) I have used this data to suggest that some people who agree to survey propositions that above-average income earners pay more tax – as 41% of people are in the latest Essential Research survey – may get a nasty shock when they find the taxman raiding their wallets.

While I still think this is likely to be the case, asking people to put themselves into the correct income decile is a big ask. I would expect more general questions such as average, below average, or above average would yield more accurate results. Using data from the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes and comparing it to 2006 census household family income data I found that accuracy improved but significant discrepancies remained.

(The image is not entirely clear: the three horizontal axis labels are below median <$52,000; median $52,000-$77,999, and above median <$78,000) Continue reading “Actual versus perceived income”

Do private schools lead to less empathy?

But if a person does their schooling in an expensive private school, plays sport against other private schools, goes on to university with primarily selective and private school graduates, gets a professional job, they might get to know fewer people from different backgrounds, and are less likely to empathise with them.

– commenter Bruce, 23 February

In race relations analysis, this is known as the ‘contact hypothesis’ – that mixing will lead to mutual understanding and improved relations. Under fairly restrictive conditions contact can achieve the desired goals. But absent those conditions contact can have the opposite effect, confirming bad impressions and worsening ill-feeling.

So we can’t be sure that a toffs meets trailer trash school policy would have a positive effect on mutual relations. The poor as an abstract entity may win more empathy than the poor in person. And the rich as a snobbish, privileged presence in the same classroom may inspire more resentment than than the rich as a distant social class.

Whatever the possible outcomes of shared classrooms, analysis of social attitudes by school background suggests that generally where someone went to school doesn’t seem to have a large influence, as the following figures show (all vertical axes show percentages). Continue reading “Do private schools lead to less empathy?”

Is there complete social mobility over time?

Over two generations, socioeconomic class tends to be ‘sticky’. Statistically speaking, the occupation of a parent influences the occupation of a child. But what about the very long term?

Robert Wiblin has drawn my attention to this very interesting paper by the economic historian Gregory Clark, which argues that over multiple generations there is a class ‘regression to the mean’, with the inequalities of one generation washing out over time.

Clark’s method is to use English records of surnames, which can be used to roughly trace the class progress of people with different family names. Some surnames reveal class backgrounds because they are taken from medieval occupations (eg Smith, Clerk/Clark, Shepherd, Cooper, Carter). Clark furthers his study by examining the names in records of wills, tax payments, and court appearances. Over time, the share of names appearing in lists of those with large estates or criminal defendants can roughly track class progress.

What Clark finds is that England over the 800 years from 1200 was without persistent social classes. The handful of aristocratic families who can trace their family trees back centuries are outliers. Continue reading “Is there complete social mobility over time?”

An unfair university equity policy?

Julia Gillard wants to to increase the number of low SES students, and to improve their pass and retention rates. The government has now proposed a number of ‘equity’ policies to achieve these goals.

In this week’s Campus Review I argue (try here if the CR link does not work) that we could be headed for an unfair equity policy.

Part of the problem is that though the government is seeking to replace the current postcode-based measure of SES, probably with individual measures such as parental education, it is still talking about classifying the lowest 25% as ‘low SES’. What I show in the CR article, principally using NAPLAN results, is that lowest 25% is a highly arbitrary cut-off point. People above and below it have very similar (and not especially good) levels of academic performance.

This wouldn’t necessarily matter much, except for the fact that under the government’s policies individual benefits will attach to a low SES classification. Continue reading “An unfair university equity policy?”

Why focus only on the lowest 25% of postcodes?

Yesterday my U of M boss, Glyn Davis, gave a speech on the difficulties in reaching the government’s target of 20% of all higher education enrolments being from a low socieonomic status background. The current definition of ‘low SES’ is living in the lowest 25% of postcodes according to the ABS index of education and occupation.

It is well established that socieconomic differences in school results are the major reason why low SES students are ‘under-represented’ at university. However, it was not until I recently analysed 2008 Victorian Year 12 results that I realised that lowest 25% seems like an inappropriately narrow target group. As the figure below shows, while students living in the lowest 10% of postcodes are clearly the weakest performers, those in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th deciles have very similar (and not very good) school results). Very few receive ENTER scores in the 90s, and nearly half have ENTER scores below 50. While results trend upwards after the 5th decile, it is only a modest exaggeration to say that we really have the top 20% and the rest.

Continue reading “Why focus only on the lowest 25% of postcodes?”