Saturday, July 03, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - tea houses of a now defunct past

My post Howard and the ICC drew an interesting and very critical comment from Ramana about the workings of the BCCI, the body controlling Indian cricket. Australian media reports on the Indian reaction to the affair, Wrath of the Indian cricket gods for example, suggest that the stereotypes about Australia that we saw during the earlier Indian student controversy continue live and well in some parts of the Indian media. We could hardly expect otherwise.

As I said then, we cannot control other's views. We can only control our responses. Australia is as Australia will be, a nation in the continued process of re-shaping itself.

I write a lot about social change because I find the process interesting. Often, you can only clearly see the effects and pattern of change in retrospect. I lived through the changes over the last part of the twentieth century. Only now do I feel comfortable in writing about them. Time was required to see the pattern and to set a context.

The changes presently taking place in Australia are just as profound as those that occurred over the last decades of the twentieth century and indeed, as you would expect, are linked to them given the nature of the lags involved. In turn, the changes that will take place over the next twenty years are linked to what is happening now. Two cases to illustrate this.

Over 2009, Australia admitted 508,000 migrants. This is the gross figure. The commonly quoted net migration figure of 277,700 is after subtracting the 230,300 residents who left the country. These are big numbers. As I have remarked before, the sheer size of our migrant intake has of itself been a not completely conscious exercise in social engineering.

Even if we were to do as the new British Government has done and turn off the tap, and I don't think that we can or should actually do this, the effects of previous decisions are already working their way through the system.

In an interesting story in the Sydney Morning Herald, Migrant pupils top the entry tests for selective schools, Anna Patty and Andrew Stevenson discuss the changes that have been taking place at school level. I want to put their analysis in a slightly different way.

You would expect the size of our migrant intake to affect school composition, and indeed it has. in the NSW public school system, around 25%, one student in four, comes from non-English speaking backgrounds. That's a pretty big proportion.

Now what happens to those students? Again, we can see a clear pattern.

In NSW, the selective high school system is targeted by many parents because it is perceived as giving kids a better chance of getting into the top university courses. The SMH analysis suggests that the percentage of students from migrant families entering the selective system has risen dramatically from 29 per cent in 1995 to as high as 62 per cent in 2008. The component is sharply skewed towards children from Asian-origin families.

Putting this another way, the Herald analysis suggests that 42 per cent of children from non-English speaking backgrounds who sat the annual selective high school entrance test last year won a place, whereas fewer than 23 per cent of students whose families speak English at home were successful.

Something of the same pattern comes through in the broader school system including private schools where the top spots in many schools are dominated by Asian back-ground students. There is nothing wrong with this, nor is it new. It reflects cultural features that we have seen before in other groups who have emphasised education as a way of advancement.

As you might expect, this school pattern has already flowed through into the universities. Excluding overseas students, Asian back-ground students make up far higher proportion of certain courses than their share of the population and have done so for a number of years. In turn, this has already affected the composition of many professions.

These types of changes take time to work their way through. We can see this in the changing role of women, the second example of cultural change that I want to talk about very briefly.

In many ways, the women's movement peaked in the 1970s. However, the changes that were set in effect in combination with other social changes have worked their way through the system year after year. For a number of years now, girls have out-performed boys in the school system. In turn, this led to the increasing feminisation of numbers in university courses previously dominated by men. The process has been slow but inexorable.

Take law as an example. The length of time required to achieve partnership status varies, but we can take 10-15 years as a rough number. Once a person becomes a partner, they stay a partner for a number of years. So partnership composition whether measured in gender or ethnic terms varies slowly.

I am not sure when women first passed men as a proportion of law students. I would guess about ten to twelve years ago. Certainly women were already in the majority when I did a study on this in the early 2000s.

Assuming no gender barriers, and taking lags into account, from the time women first became a majority of students, it would be ten to fifteen years before they become the majority of new partners, perhaps another ten years before the gender balance starts to fully reflect the earlier changes in gender composition within the student body. So if female law students passed the 50% mark in 2000, the proportion of new female partners would pass 50% in the period 2010-2015, the total proportion of female partners 50% around 2020-2025.

The presence of gender barriers may slow the process, but it is inexorable. Simply put, when push comes to shove, no law firm will allow gender to stand in front of partner profit ! To make that profit, you have to have people.

I may seem to have come a long way from the ICC and the views of Indian commentators.

The world view of those commentators was formed by the past. It is, if you like, rather strident and old-fashioned, dated, formed in a now-gone world. They haven't caught up on the changes in Australia over the last sixty years, let alone the new change processes now underway.

As I said, we can't do anything about those views, we can only manage our responses. Here, having worked my way through this analysis, I suggest that we focus on the Australian experiment, on making things work better. Leave the Indian commentators to hold their placards outside the increasingly shabby tea houses of a now defunct past.

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