Catallaxy Files

polymathic pontification, bleeding heart economic rationalism and liberal secularist contrarianism

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    Thursday, January 22, 2004
    Axle of evil

    The Sydney Morning Herald's website this morning leads with the tragic deaths in a road accident of four of six members of the same family, leaving two girls as orphans.

    The commentary focuses on the state of the Hume Highway, and whether that contributed to the accident. What they are missing is the significance of this piece of information:

    their four-wheel-drive rolled and crashed

    As I understand it, these cars are more prone to rolling over than normal sedans, and more likely to kill when they do. In fact the plague of these vehicles on our roads - typically for owners of four-wheel drives, this family lived in the suburbs, and probably rarely or never took it off road - is one of the undoubted negative social trends of the last 15 or so years.

    Aside from the danger to their own occupants, they cause much more damage and injury to other cars and their occupants in multi-vehicle accidents, and by blocking lines of vision probably contribute to accidents in which they are not directly involved.

    See Gregg Easterbrook's assault on these vehicles - a lot of them are called SUVs (sports utility vehicles) in the US - which The New Republic called The Axle of Evil.

    More information on the dangers of 4 wheel drives.

    Wednesday, January 21, 2004
    A good publicity stunt

    The Sydney Morning Herald this morning reports my dial-a-quote remarks on Macquarie University's decision, from 2005, to set student contribution amounts for some science subjects below current HECS levels. I thought it was pretty clever of Macquarie to get in quickly with some not very expensive price reductions which were sure to generate a heap of publicity.

    As I suggest in the SMH, Macquarie's choice of discipline probably has much to do with the interaction between what revenue per student the university gets from the government and what revenue it gets from students. In science at least two-thirds, and possibly more (if student contributions are set below the maximum) of revenue will still come from the Commonwealth. Consequently, Macquarie's 30% reduction in student contributions represents a much smaller % reduction in revenue per student. Over at the law school, up to 85% of revenue will come from students. They can't reduce student charges without having a much more substantial impact on income per student.

    A lot will also depend on something we don't know - how much it actually costs to educate a student. System-wide, it is clear that universities have been cross-subsidising HECS students from full-fee student revenue. But that doesn't mean that in individual courses the Commonwealth subsidy isn't enough. In courses where the subsidy exceeds expenses, and there is soft demand, expect to see more discounting.

    Tuesday, January 20, 2004
    The luvvies have some friends, after all

    In my blog last week on surprisingly positive public opinion on the US-Australia free trade agreement, I speculated that this may be in part due to indifference to the special pleading of the arts and entertainment lobby. After publishing an expanded version of that blog in The Australian Financial Review today, the pollster sent me the full poll results.

    Included was an additional question which had not been included in the original news report. This asked

    Would you support or oppose the proposed Free Trade Agreement with the US if some of our farmers were able to sell more products to America, but in return our local film and television industry was harmed?

    When it was put like this, support for the free trade agreement went down from 53% to 44%. This is still a good result in the history of polling on protection, but no longer a majority. People whose location was listed as 'provincial' became 4% more likely to support the agreement, but support from those whose location was classified as 'inner metropolitan' plummeted from an on-average 53% to a below-average 37%. An element of self-interest in each movement of opinion? Still, the fact that so many people had not noticed all the bleating about local film and tv production suggests that they are sensibly ignoring the luvvies' political opinions.

    Monday, January 19, 2004
    A "terrible waste of their talent"?

    University offers are out today in Victoria and NSW, and all the newspapers are running stories about the numbers of applicants who won't receive offers. In The Sydney Morning Herald Opposition Education Spokeswoman Jenny Macklin is reported as saying that this unmet demand is a "terrible waste of their talent".

    I'm certainly not defending the number of university places available. The total is barely better than a number picked out of a hat, and as I blogged last week poor government policies have artificially reduced opportunities this year. That said, there is little evidence that "talent" is being wasted.

    In Victoria, for example, where unmet demand was particularly high last year and will be high again this year, it still remained the case that for 2003 90% of those missing out had ENTER scores below 70. They are not academic high achievers or anything close to it. People with these scores, if they do get in, are much more likely to drop out than students with higher ENTER scores. It is quite possible that they are disproportionately represented among the 20+% of graduates working in jobs that don't require degrees.

    Unfortunately, we know very little about how well people who go to university on modest school results do over the long term. As is so often the case, we launched into a major social experiment - mass higher education - without setting up any studies to work out whether we really are helping people improve their life prospects. Some British research, reported in this week's issue of The Economist, suggests that education may not be the key to social mobility that many have assumed.

    We need to consider the possiblity that it is going to university, rather than missing out on it, which constitutes a waste of talent. Most people are better suited to vocational education or immediate workforce entry. Spending three years at university isn't likely to develop whatever potential they possess.




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