Higher education 101

My first Grattan higher education report was released last night. The media coverage is mostly about the relationship between teaching and research, but the report itself is quite wide-ranging, covering

* the legal definition of higher education and universities
* the non-university higher education providers
* trends in student numbers, including what is being studied, and off-campus/on-campus
* who is studying – male/female, on campus/off-campus, low SES/high SES
* numbers of research staff and students, research fields of study, research spending and levels of research publications
* higher education finance; which institutions are eligible, total amounts spent, the HELP loan scheme, private spending
* micro issues in higher education funding: income per student, the demand-driven system
* the departments and ministers covering higher ed, including the Commonwealth takeover
* pass rates, student engagement and satisfaction
* graduate employment and income
* skills shortages, claimed civic and other benefits of higher education
* public confidence in universities

For people in Sydney, there is an event on Thursday 9 February.

Blog readers survey

Do blog readers have different views about politics to ordinary voters?

Peter John Chen of the Department of Government at the University of Sydney is conducting a survey of blog readers, with some overlapping questions with the Australian Election Study.

The survey is open to readers of the blog who live in Australia. It will be used in a forthcoming (2012) book on the internet and Australia.

The survey will take only 10 minutes, and all responses are anonymous and confidential.

The survey can be found here.

You can have results sent to you if decide to leave an email. Otherwise, I will report them when they are available.

Does anybody understand NSW campaign finance law?

I spent part of the day celebrating the founding of NSW politics reading the transcripts from a NSW Legislative Council inquiry into Barry O’Farrell’s proposed amendments to NSW campaign finance law. These amendments would ban people not on the electoral roll from making political donations and count union political campaign expenditure towards the ALP’s campaign spending cap.

While the broad policy goals can be stated simply enough, the detail and its interaction with existing NSW campaign finance law are extremely complex. My submission took much longer than I expected to write, as I worked through various different scenarios and how the actual or proposed laws would apply. Especially if these amendments pass, it would be almost impossible for political activists or NGOs that campaign on poiltical issues to stay within the law without legal training or an extensive background in campaign finance matters. This is a serious problem all in itself, quite aside from the major conceptual flaws behind the whole NSW campaign finance regime.

I’m certainly not alone in thinking it is too complex. Appearing before the inquiry, Professor Anne Twomey from the University of Sydney, a leading scholar in the consitutional aspects of campaign finance law, said:Read More »

Should HELP be extended to vocational education students?

Yesterday the Prime Minister said the government would extend income contingent loans to students studying for ‘high-level’ vocational skills (diploma-level voc ed courses already have HELP loans in some cases). Various concerns have been expressed in today’s paper.

One of my concerns is that this would be overly costly for taxpayers if the existing HELP loan scheme is used. This is because the repayment system is designed for graduate level income, not the incomes of people with vocational qualifications. It is not entirely clear what Gillard is proposing, but in 2009 the median annual income of someone with a certificate III or IV qualification was $45,600. In that year the threshold for repaying a HELP loan was $43,151.

The median is all workers, so the median for new workers would be lower (though in these lines of work, income tends to plateau early). This suggests that there would be large numbers of slow or non-repayers, with consequent interest and bad debt costs for taxpayers.

Should low ATAR students be admitted to university?

Over at Catallaxy, Judy Sloan is having a go at low ATAR university courses.

I just want to have the bridges identified which are designed by civil engineers with cut-off points of 62.

And I also noticed that the cut off score for entry into Primary Education courses is in the 50s – pity the poor children in a few years time.

As Judy hints at, ATAR (or its predecessors: ENTER, UAI, TER) is only moderately predictive of future academic performance, and even then only for higher ATAR students. This overview paper on Victorian university selection practices summarised some of the research:

Their … work at Monash confirmed the correlation between high ENTER and strong university performance (r=0.38 for ENTER over 80). Importantly, however, they found little correlation between ENTER and university performance for low to middle ENTER bands (r=0.04 for ENTER below 80). This finding supports that of Murphy et al. (2001), who found in their study of RMIT students that the strongest correlations between ENTER and university performance were at ENTERs above 80, with no correlation between 40 and 80 and variable correlation below 40.

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The employment numbers for maths

In this morning’s Higher Education Supplement, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb was given prominent coverage for his marketing of maths courses (it was based on this speech). The HES reported:

“Unfortunately for Australia – though perhaps fortunately for you – demand in Australia for maths graduates has outstripped supply,” the professor told the gathering at the University of NSW.

It meant that every one of the 100 or so mostly honours students in the crowd should be able to get a good job on graduation.

But as I have pointed out before, there is reason to be sceptical about these claims. While not poor, work outcomes for male bachelor degree holders who majored in maths are nothing special.

And the Graduate Destination Survey, which investigates employment outcomes for recent bachelor degree graduates, finds in most years their full-time employment rate (as a % of those seeking FT employment) is below the average for all graduates.

I haven’t investigated outcomes for people with postgraduate maths qualifications. I expect that they might be better. But for undergraduates, a maths major is no guarantee of easily finding a good job.

A proposal to politicise university curricula

In this morning’s Australian, I am reported criticising some recommendations of a Universities Australia report on ‘Indigenous cultural competency’.

The report contains examples of things universities are doing to better serve their Indigenous students or give other students knowledge they may need when working with Indigenous people. All this is within the scope of what universities should be doing to educate their students and prepare them for their professional lives. Unfortunately, the report’s recommendations go well beyond necessary, reasonable or desirable initiatives to a much larger political agenda. Consider the first three recommendations in the section on teaching and learning (emphasis added):

Recommendation 1: Embed Indigenous knowledges and perspectives in all university curricula to provide students with the knowledge, skills and understandings which form the foundations of Indigenous cultural competency.
Recommendation 2: Include Indigenous cultural competency as a formal Graduate Attribute or Quality.
Recommendation 3: Incorporate Indigenous Australian knowledges and perspectives into programs according to a culturally competent pedagogical framework.

The ‘all’ in recommendation 1 is a step too far. There are no Indigenous ‘knowledges and perspectives’ on much of what is taught in universities, if by that we mean their traditional knowledge. If it means the ‘knowledges and perspectives’ of modern Indigenous background people, then it is hard to see why these deserve a place in the curriculum (even if academics perhaps need to know what some of their Indigenous students might believe). Nobody has any special insight just because of their ethnic background. At least in theory, the modern university rejects any such claim to authority. Knowledge and theories have to stand on their own, regardless of who advocates them.Read More »