Sacred Cows 1, Beazley 1

HecsTwo much-cherished principles among many on the left are that school choice will hurt the poor, and that HECS deters poor students. In his speech to the ANZSOG schools conference, Labor leader Kim Beazley yesterday took on the first. As Michael Costello points out today, "Nobody should underestimate how radical it is for Labor to open up choice between public secondary schools".

But then, Beazley takes aim at HECS, saying "I will have more to say at a later stage, in particular about the giant burden HECS has become". We can only hope that what he has to say in the future is: "I was wrong when I called HECS a giant burden". The graph above is from a paper by Bruce Chapman and Chris Ryan, showing university attendance by wealth group before HECS (1988), after HECS (1993), and after the radical HECS changes (1998). It’s true that the poor attend university less than the rich, but this was always the case – including under free education. Since the introduction of HECS, we’ve had more money to spend on universities, and attendance by all groups – poor and rich alike – has risen.

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18 Responses to Sacred Cows 1, Beazley 1

  1. Steve Edney says:

    Just drawing rough figures of the graphs, but doesn’t this show that the poorest quartile has declined from 19.5% of university entrants to 16.5% of university entrants? ie. they are not keeping up with the trend towards more education which has gone from 25.5% of the population to around 39.5% – which is occuring mostly in the middle quartiles.

  2. Guy says:

    I’m currently doing a historical overview of education policy over the last 30 years as a research project, and have recently posted on this here:

    HECS was simply put a brilliant idea. “Free education” is a nice rhetorical concept to plug, but at the end of the day, government should be trying to ensure that tertiary institutions have the maximum possible financial resources available to them, without imposing barriers to access via user-pays.

    The evidence suggests that HECS does this pretty damned well.

  3. Sacha Blumen says:

    There could be many reasons, not just HECS, that have lead to the situations displayed in the graphs.

    Personally, I’m more than happy to contribute to my own education.

  4. Steve – Students from low SES areas (the DEST measure) have been a stable over time as a % of the total domestic uni population -14.7% in 1991, 14.5% in 2003. However this is the wrong measure if we are interested in access. The correct measure is their own population, which as Andrew L’s data shows is increasing. Given however that the main obstacles to admission are poor Year 12 scores, a better measure still would be % of those who achieve reasonably good Year 12 scores.

    There is a simple economic explanation for why price has had no effect, which is that in all the studies so far the value of the uni education is still much higher than the price. Therefore price has had no effect on the attend/not attend decision, though since differential HECS it is possible it may have influenced course choice to some degree.

  5. Steve Edney says:

    Andrew N,

    I agree percentages with similar scores would be a better measure. However, while increasing their own population is obviously a good thing, I would have thought at least keeping some parity with the overall mix would be important as well given requirements for jobs have risen.

  6. Sacha Blumen says:

    I wonder how you measure the value of doing a degree in philosophy or pure mathematics? You can’t do it in monetary terms – perhaps you could give some kind of value to the experience and how it changes someone’s mind, but measuring its value in terms of earning potential is just puerile.

  7. Steve Edney says:

    I don’t see why valuing maths or philosophy degrees is any more “puerile” than valuing history, literature or economics degrees.

    Most people I know who did maths degrees, particularly PhDs, pure or applied, do very well if they go into private sector. At lot more monetarily rewarding than say those who did Medicine.

  8. Yobbo says:

    What about the philosophy graduates though? Are they now working at McDonalds?

    There are actually many real-world applications for Mathematics, after all.

    I must admit that I don’t any philosophy graduates, as I tended to avoid them in my uni days, their black lipstick and eye shadow frightened me, and their common room smelled like bong water.

    On the flip side most of my friends studied Maths, Science or Engineering, and those who didn’t drop out are all doing very well.

  9. John Quiggin says:

    I’m a bit surprised by this post. It’s my impression (backed by direct experience as a parent) that there’s now a great deal of capacity for choice between public secondary schools and that the abandonment of strict geographical restrictions on enrolment was not particularly controversial (compared say to the continuing bitterness of debates over external testing, aid to private schools, methods of teaching reading etc).

  10. Sacha – My use of the word ‘value’ was not implying that the only value was financial value. Prices reflect the point at which an exchange will occur, which is not necessarily the financial or intrinsic value of the good/service to either party.

  11. I’ll understimate how radical it is.

    As John suspects, parents in Queensland can send their kids to any public school they like. The one I went to wasn’t closest to my home (and I was enrolled there in 1980) but generally regarded as the best academically on the Northside.

  12. I have further discussion of this issue at Catallaxy:

  13. John Quiggin says:

    Just to follow up, the situation is much the same in the ACT, at both primary and secondary level. Although my sons went to the local schools, their schoolmates came from all over the place.

    There are some obvious problems that are going to arise if you combine school choice with some of the funding formulas recommended by advocates of school reform, but this is merely showing more clearly the problems inherent in the reform proposals.

  14. Andrew Leigh says:

    John, there are certainly some zoning issues in the ACT, though the education department carefully doesn’t call them zones ( But because schools have limited autonomy, they find it difficult to expand to match capacity, so the zoning constraint binds. I’ve spoken to colleagues living in areas where the catchment area boundary runs down the middle of the street, and those on the side of the street that falls in the “better” school zone have house prices that are thousands of dollars higher.

  15. Sacha Blumen says:

    Ok – sorry for the misunderstanding about the meaning of “value”.

    One thing about HECS is how the perception of it as a debt might affect whether people attend university or the courses they do. Of course, it’s a different sort of debt (no real interest, repayable only if you have a fair amount of taxable income etc). I’ve thought that it’s a bit sad if the idea of it being a debt leads to people not doing courses that they would otherwise do.

  16. Sacha Blumen says:

    Following on from Mark’s comments – I remember people at my primary school in Brisbane coming from all over the place – I remember thinking how far some of them travelled to get there – of course now in Sydney, I’m amazed that some people travel two hours each way to work.

  17. Sacha – Unlike most people, I think price should affect behaviour in higher education. Courses are very expensive in time and money for students and universities, and in money for taxpayers. Under our current system, places are also limited. If someone is so uncommitted to a course that a modest debt puts them off, then that is probably a good thing. Leave it to someone who is seriously interested. The only issue is whether there are prospective students who would benefit but do not understand the advantages of attending university. There may be such people, but the efficient way to deal with them is through finding them and giving them correct advice, and not through crippling the entire system through price control, our strategy to date.

  18. Sacha Blumen says:

    Andrew, sorry – but what I meant was that I thought it was sad if people decided not to do courses because they thought the HECS debt resulted in a far greater impost than it does – ie they have the wrong information – which is what you say.

    I’ve recently been reading about school vouchers – is there a relation between school vouchers and the ability to choose whichever public school you wish – in that effectively they lead to the same outcome? Sorry, I just don’t know (having been immersed in mathematics for many years). Was the ALP previously opposed to having choice in public schools because it didn’t want a market-type situation?

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