What I have been reading

Some time travelling last month gave me a chance to read some good books about things other than higher education:

Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. Some countries do much better in OECD school tests than others, prompting much investigation about why (my Grattan colleagues among them).

Ripley successfully uses a journalistic device of following the experiences of American exchange students in Poland, Finland, and South Korea to give a very readable introduction to the differences between their education systems and America’s. The material on South Korea is the highlight, explaining how a country in which students sleep during class tops OECD rankings.

Jackie Dickenson, Trust Me: Australians and their politicians. An appropriate book to read during an election campaign in which many people were saying that they were disillusioned by politicians and the major parties. As Dickenson shows, similar complaints have been made many times over more than a hundred years.

As Dickenson suggests, these attitudes can be a pose – cliched views that don’t translate into diminished expectations of government or even necessarily into opinions about individual politicians. But she usefully analyses real-world trends that foster mistrust.

The party system can be a force for mistrust, as it means that politicians often have to say things we suspect they don’t believe or don’t care about. Yet parties remain the key mechanism by which voters get the things that they are promised (Dickenson makes the point that, contrary to the impression of many voters, most promises are kept). The introduction of pay for politicians meant that people who were not rich could run for office, but set off a century and more of media outrage at politicians’ pay and perks.

This book tended to reinforce my view that voters are far too cynical about politicians as people and far too naive about government as an institution.

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist. Several reviewers (eg Tim Wu) have said the Morozov is too mean to the many people he attacks in this book. I suspect they are right, but not being one of his targets I enjoyed the erudition and intellectual energy on display.

Given the American connotations of the word ‘conservative’, Morozov (a US resident from Belarus) probably would not like being described that way. But underlying this book is a conservatism for which I have a fair amount of sympathy. Different spheres of activity have their own norms and logics that should not necessarily be swept aside by values supposedly intrinsic to the internet (such as more information being better, or transparency). We should not necessarily try to solve all problems (‘solutionism’).

Anyone who is explaining the parallels between Ivan Illich, Michael Oakeshott, Jane Jacobs and Friedrich Hayek by page 7 in my view has something interesting to say.

What do high-ATAR students study?

The Australian‘s Higher Education Supplement ran a story this week on how high-ATAR Victorian students chase a narrow range of courses and unis. It was based on research by La Trobe’s Andrew Harvey.

The national applications data shows how this produces a counter-intuitive outcome: applicants with ATARs above 90 are persistently less likely to get an offer than students with ATARs of 80-90 or 70 to 80. The 2012 offer rates were, respectively: 91%, 97%, 96%.

It means that a few per cent of the 90+ students take all or nothing gambles. Even though there are hundreds of courses that would accept them, they only apply for one or a small number, and some of them end up missing out. Presumably most of them learn a lesson about hubris and put in a more realistic application the following year.

Andrew H also comments that “the progression of elite students into a narrow range of courses and universities arguably has a distortionary effect on the workforce and society.”

While I partly agree with this, data I received from DIICCSRTE (I hope this name will soon change) on the ATARs of first-year students suggests that the top-performing school leavers are more spread across the disciplines than the applications data might suggest.

The figure below has the 2011 ATAR for a student admitted at the 90th percentile of everyone taking that subject, or in other words with just enough to put them in the top 10%. It just shows those where the 90th percentile is at 98 or above. Surprisingly, radiography is at the top and maths is second (though there are few specific maths courses). From the arts, language and literature is there. If we drop down to 97, politics, history and the performing arts are all there.

90th percentile admissions

Teacher education has a 90th percentile of ATAR 90, with a median of 75. Not spectacular, but far from the very low cut-offs at some unis that attract so much attention.

The complicated university teaching-research relationship

In The Age this morning, Don Aitken argues that university teaching has come off second best. ‘Today research, and only research, is really important,’ he says.

I certainly think that university teaching needs improving. But the story is not one of the decline of teaching and the rise of research, with one improving at the clear expense of the other.

Up until the Dawkins reforms of the late 1980s and early 1990s more than half of higher education students attended colleges of advanced education or institutes of technology. Their mission was teaching rather than research, although some of their academics were doing research. The universities were teaching-research institutions, but with weaker research pressures than today. Most research funding was delivered as a block grant that was (unlike today) not linked to indicators of research performance.

If the teaching-focused colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology were good at teaching, we would expect their positive legacy to show when the first national student survey (the course experience questionnaire) was conducted in the mid-1990s. In reality, the CEQ showed generally dismal results. Across the country, the average positive response to six teaching-related questions was around one-third.

As the government started emphasising research performance in its funding policies, the apparent incentive was to focus on it over teaching. But this is not showing in the trend data (the figure below). The time series was was upset in 2010 in ways that exaggerate satisfaction compared to the past, but the steady upward trend in satisfaction cannot be disputed. (Some theories as to why are here.)

GTS

A consistently calculated time series on research productivity only goes back to 1997. It shows steadily increasing productivity up to 2005, where it stablises at an average 2.1-2.2 publications per full-time researcher per year (counting teaching-research staff as 0.4 full-time equivalent in research, in line with common time use expectations).

Publications per academic

Rather than research rising at the expense of teaching, on these indicators they both rose together until the middle of last decade. In research, the focus has shifted to research quality – it’s still too early to put numbers on it, but simultaneous with on-going increases in satisfaction with teaching universities are culling weaker researchers and focusing their investment in areas of relative research strength.

As well as it being difficult to find evidence for research at the expense of teaching over time, our recent Grattan research project failed to find much evidence that low-research departments are better at teaching than high-research departments, as measured by recent student surveys.

My view is that at the dawn of the Dawkins era universities were under-performing institutions, across both teaching and research. Research was further down the path of professionalisation and favoured in academic culture. But both teaching and research needed to improve a lot, and that is what we have seen.

Just removing research and making some universities ‘teaching only’ would not on its own make things better. Improved teaching needs concerted effort, whether or not it occurs in an institution that also produces research.

Why is student satisfaction with teaching increasing?

My new Grattan report argues that teaching in Australian universities could be improved. But despite remaining shortcomings, I think significant progress has been made since the 1990s.

We often hear that with higher student-staff ratios Australian academics have less time to spend on students. But in the long-running course experience questionnaire survey it is the time-use questions that have shown the greatest improvement over time.

The figure below shows that the proportion of completing students agreeing that staff ‘put a lot of time into commenting on my work’ and ‘normally gave me helpful feedback on how I was going’ has roughly doubled since 1997.*

feeback questions ceq

I think a major explanation is likely to be technology. The increase last decade matches with the spread of home internet connections. Academic staff became much more accessible via email and learning management systems than they had ever been before, and were also able to efficiently give the same or similar feedback to multiple students.

There were also good improvements (20 percentage points plus) in agreement with propositions such as lecturers were good at explaining things, teachers motivated me to do my best work, and staff worked hard to make their subjects interesting. These are not so obviously technology driven, suggesting that other forces for good teaching were at work.

These might include the spread of subject-level student surveys and their link to promotion and greater (though still typically very short course) training in university teaching.

Whatever the exact causes, these results highlight how increasing funding is not necessarily the key to improved education. Through most of these years, real per student funding for Commonwealth-supported students was declining. How universities organise themselves is the most important factor.

* All five points on the response scale were labelled for the first time in 2010, with points labelled strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree and strongly agree. In previous
years, only the anchor points of strongly disagree and strongly agree were labelled. This seems to have increased positive responses.

The persistence of health and education students

I recently received some new data on completion and attrition rates by ATAR, a surprisingly under-examined topic in Australian higher education. My Mapping Australian higher education publication summarises research suggesting a weak relationship between ATAR and average marks. However, data on 2005 commencing students shows a quite strong relationship beween ATAR and completion – the higher the ATAR, the higher the chance of completion. The whole cohort data is in this article.

We also have the data by field of education. Most disciplines have the same general pattern. But two, health and education, have higher persistence at lower ATARs, as can be seen below.

health ed atar completion
Source: DIICCSRTE

The same two broad fields of study also have graduates with high rates of retention in jobs related to their field of study, as seen in the chart below.

Degree job relevance

I’m inclined to think that the main reason is that people who choose these degrees have a relatively high degree of commitment to the end occupation from day one. A colleague notes that this may in part be because students in these fields don’t necessarily have many attractive alternatives. For people with lowish ATARs who don’t want to do voc ed, teaching and nursing have been paths to relatively secure and reasonably paid careers.

Kenneth Minogue, RIP

Sad news over at Catallaxy that Kenneth Minogue has died.

In the 1980s he was one of the political theorists who made me think that I wanted to be one too – I was in the tiny handful of people interested in this K. Minogue rather than the other one. My pre-computer card files list 36 Minogue articles I had stored away for future study. I am rarely much good with titles, but I still like some of his: ‘The Hucksters of Happiness’, ‘The Prison Cell of Political Theory’, and ‘Freedom as a Skill’.

The last one hints at his political position. He was a classical liberal, but presumably influenced by his LSE colleague Michael Oakeshott saw it as based on the culture and practices of Western societies, rather than on single abstract principles such as liberty or natural rights from which all else must be derived. Living in a free society requires ‘skills’ that need to be learned – the quotations in Julie Novak’s Catallaxy obituary from early and late in Minogue’s career show how this was a long-running theme.

I think Minogue’s inductive liberalism is probably a minority position in political theory, or at least there is far more written about grand attempts to create principles to govern society, such as John Rawls’ original position. But in real-world liberalism it is common. The conclusions for liberty, markets, limited government, and so on are still there, but with messy arguments based on precedent, analogy, tradition and many different general principles.

Minogue discusses his ideas in this interview I did with him in 1995. Minogue spoke as he wrote, in well-formed sentences. He was as easy to edit as he was to read.

Kenneth Minogue, RIP.

How well do agriculture graduates do?

A reader of my article on science graduates surplus to labour market requirements took exception to a figure showing poor job relevance of agriculture degrees. He points out (correctly) that this ABS category is ‘Agriculture, Environmental and Related Studies’, and argues that the poor outcomes are due to the environmental rather than agricultural element.

Unfortunately, the survey I was using in the figure does not report at sub-field level. However, the census does and we can see that although environmental studies is the biggest sub-field (the numbers in brackets) the more traditional agricultural areas don’t do especially well in leading to professional or managerial employment, the occupations the ABS deems to require bachelor-degree level skills.

agriculture
Note: Only includes people reporting a bachelor degree as their highest qualification. Those not working and those currently studying have been excluded.

On a quick glance there looked to be unusually large numbers in jobs classified by the ABS as ‘technicians and tradespersons’. Adding them in takes most disciplines up to 70-76% employment.

The numbers for recent agriculture graduates may be compromised by the inclusion of environmental graduates (they use a different disciplinary classification to the ABS; I am not sure what is included in agriculture). But their employment rates are slightly below average.

I am aware that employers in the agricultural sector report recruiting difficulties. But overall these figures suggest that agriculture is a relatively high employment risk course choice.

What other degrees do science graduates hold?

This morning The Conversation ran another article by me on the employability of science graduates.

I used some data from the ABS Learning and Work survey. Unfortunately access to their micro-data is not free, but it does allow more detailed exploration of graduate qualifications and outcomes than most other sources. Most ABS surveys, for example, just ask about a respondent’s highest qualification. Learning and Work asks about multiple qualifications.

Learning and Work estimates that there are about 348,000 people with a bachelor degree in science. However, 35 per cent of the report as their highest degree either a postgraduate degree in science or a degree in another field. The most common other fields were education, management, health and IT. [Note: The figures in the table were corrected on 24 June. The figures in the text were correct.]

corrected science

So while employment prospects in some disciplines are sometimes not great, people often adapt to this by seeking higher or different qualifications that improve their job prospects.

What does the public think about campaign finance law?

This week’s Essential Report has some rare polling on campaign finance issues.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the negative reaction to last month’s plan for ‘administrative’ funding, support for public funding is at less than 30%:

donations versus public funding

But surprisingly to me, most voters who offered a view on the disclosure threshold opted for $5,000 or above. I was expecting a populist response and a low threshold.

Donation threshold

And most voters prefer a cap to unlimited donations, but no question on how much.

Donation capping

Except for the capping question, public opinion on this subject is more ‘liberal’ than I would have anticipated.

The Wikileaks Party’s actual and potential problems with campaign finance laws

The Age this morning reported that Julian Assange had been prevented by the Bank of America from directly donating to his own Wikileaks Party.

Assange asked that the $25,000 award [from Yoko Ono] be sent to the WikiLeaks Party, a separate legal entity to WikiLeaks. However, in April Ms Ono’s office said the Bank of America had refused to wire the money to the party’s account. …The Bank of America is one of a number of major financial institutions including Visa, American Express, Mastercard and Western Union that since December 2010 have refused to transfer funds to WikiLeaks.

But if the Labor campaign finance bill still before the Senate passes, Assange’s problem won’t just be the Bank of America. The Wikileaks Party would not be able to receive any foreign-sourced donation. Unless Assange still has an Australian bank account, he would not be able to donate his own money either.

Preventing ‘foreigners’ from expressing their views on Australian politics is bad enough. But preventing Australians, even candidates, from donating is an indefensible constraint on political freedom.

——–

Until writing this post I had not checked out the Wikileaks Party website. Its donations page advises that:

Presently donations to the WikiLeaks Party are anonymous unless otherwise requested

Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Until their registration as a political party is confirmed they are a ‘third party’, and must disclose donations over $12,100 (unless Labor’s bill gets through, in which case it will be donations over $1,000).