Monthly Archives: August 2011

Does higher education reduce crime?

One argument made for higher education – at least when arguing for more funding – is that it helps reduce crime. A visiting OECD official recently made the reduced crime claim for higher education, citing Walter McMahon.

Graduates are likely to have quite low conviction rates – I have not been able to find precise statistics, but in 2009 only 14% of 25-34 year old prisoners had completed year 12, compared to 63% of the general population in 2006.

But it seems more plausible to me that graduates are people who were always at relatively low risk of offending, regardless of whether or not they pursued higher education. This low risk would be a function of better socialisation, and the ability to earn a reasonable income without breaking the law. Education is likely to have whatever preventive effects it is going to have well before higher education.

The broad historical trends would also seem to count against any straightforward link between higher education and crime. Australia’s crime statistics don’t lend themselves to easy long-term time series, but crime and education both escalated significantly from the 1970s. The figure below shows crime and higher education attainment increasing from the mid-1990s to around the turn of the century, before crime started trending down again (as also occurred in other countries).


Sources: Education and Work, Australian Institute of Criminology

My theory would be that a third factor at least partly explains both trends, though I think crime is a more multi-factor phenomenon than higher education. The collapsing labour market opportunities for men with little education over the last 30-40 years made both crime and higher education more profitable relative to the alternative of welfare/insecure jobs. So crime and higher education both increased.

But there is no direct relationship between crime and higher education, and increasing the latter will not decrease the former.

Which slopes are slippery?

Near the end of his anti-gay marriage article in today’s Age, Ted Lapkin does get to some substantive reasons why he thinks gay marriage is a bad idea. But much of the article is devoted to the slippery slope argument that once we have gay marriage we will slide into things we really don’t like, such as legal recognition of polygamy and decriminalising incest.

I don’t disagree with Lapkin that issues can develop their own logics, and that one change can make another change more likely. I think we are now nearing the base of a moderately slippery slope on gay issues. Once the state gave up on the idea of actively persecuting gay people for acting on their sexual desires, it became harder and harder to defend all the other ways in which the law disadvantaged them.

Lapkin himself says that everyone, gay or straight, is entitled to identical protections from the law – something that few conservative defenders of the family would have said until quite recently. Once you are sliding on the slippery slope, it can be hard to stop. The last conservative stand on gay issues at the Marriage Act is no more likely to succeed in the end than any of the other battles along the way.

The question then is not whether slippery slopes exist, but whether you can slide from one slope to another in any kind of deterministic fashion (“The floodgates will inevitably open to a further slide down the slippery slope of social disintegration”.) Read more »

The workforce supply of female graduates

I’m writing a piece for The Age on the feminisation of Australia’s universities. In 2009, 59% of domestic commencing students were women. Overall the proportion of students who are female is a little lower, as there are strong male biases in education in some source countries for overseas students.

The gender shift in enrolments has big implications for the future labour supply of graduates. Though the 2006 census is getting a bit out of date, the figure below is striking. After their 20s, only a minority of female graduates work full-time except for age 50-54, when 51% are full-time workers. Obviously parenting responsibilities are a major factor in this, but even childless women are much less willing to work full-time than men.

I thought these numbers might offer some insight into the finances of the HELP loan scheme, but the ATO tax statistics don’t support this hypothesis.

Women owe 56.6% ofthe outstanding HELP debt, much what we would expect given their share of the student population. The average female balance of $12,361 in 2008-09 is lower than the average male balance of $13,914. I can think of a couple of possible reasons: the strong female majorities in cheap (to the student) courses such as education, nursing and arts; and a larger number of female than male graduates who have old unpaid debts, but at lower totals due to cheap HECS rates in the past.

If the gender age-work patterns persist, it does however raise questions about what happens if student contributions increase. Historically, the average repayment time for HECS/HELP debts is about 8 years. So on lower student contribution amounts, women who graduate in their early 20s could clear all or much of their debt by the time they leave full-time work to raise kids. But if initial debts are larger, that may not be the case.

Does the public support sending refugees to third countries?

If asked whether asylum seekers arriving by boat should be turned away, most Australians have always said yes (Murray Goot and Ian Watson have a useful summary of the polling here, from p.28). But in another example of the hard to follow public opinion on the issue, if the choice is between processing asylum seekers in Australia and sending them to another country, their choice seems to be processing in Australia.

A Nielsen poll published in the Fairfax papers yesterday found a small majority in favour of processing here, and only 28% in favour of sending refugees to a third country.



Earlier polls
found a similar pattern of opinion, if the costs of the Malaysia deal were explained.

I can’t recall any polling directly on the Howard government’s ‘Pacific solution’, but politically it was generally seen as a success. Or maybe questions about the means of stopping the boats don’t matter much. If the goal is achieved, discomfort at the means will be overlooked.

Pragmatism and ‘fundamentalism’ on the funding of the humanities

While clearing out my office earlier this month I found lots of old media clippings. Compared to the early 2000s, the higher ed debate now seems less ideological. I’m not sure exactly why, though the NTEU‘s lower profile in policy debate is probably part of it, along with the arrival of a Labor government, which attracts less heated opposition than a Coalition government.

But sometimes the old style of debate re-appears, as it did in this swipe at me in today’s Age for being a ‘market fundamentalist’, written by University of Melbourne English professor Ken Gelder.

He was responding to this article, which was a pragmatic analysis of higher education funding politics, based on a presentation I gave to a seminar on the public funding of the humanities and social sciences.

My argument was that given Australia’s political and economic arrangements the chances of significant increases in public funding for the humanities and social science were low. Smaller university English classes aren’t likely to win out as a spending priority against the many other pressing political demands. Labor and Liberal governments have behaved in quite similar ways on higher education funding, because whatever their ideological differences they face the same political imperatives. Read more »

Welcome to andrewnorton.net.au

This is my new blog, still in development but the site of my blogging while I am at the Grattan Institute.

The reasons for the switch are explained here.