Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Snippets on Australian education

As the water from the first Queensland floods passes down the Murray, now the water from the big Queensland floods has begun to enter NSW on its long journey to the Darling. Even for an Australian, there is something magical about this slow but majestic progress.

There have been a number of developments in the education arena that are worth noting.

The release of the draft national curricula on English, History, Maths and Science has been followed by release of a report from a group of Australian universities:

A groundbreaking review of the mathematics and statistics disciplines at school and university by the Go8 found "the state of the mathematical sciences and related quantitative disciplines in Australia has deteriorated to a dangerous level, and continues to deteriorate."

The universities suggest that new and expensive enabling courses at university level may be required to bridge the gap. A later story suggests that only 25 universities will offer a major in maths this year and just 15 will offer a major in statistics, according to a survey of university maths departments. I am not competent to make a judgement here, but on the surface it suggests that one key judgment about the new maths curricula is the extent to which it will encourage maths education.

While NSW Chief Scientist Mary O'Kane, herself a distinguished academic educator, argues that universities can bridge the gap through innovative courses and that NSW itself scores well on national numeracy tests. Now it may be as Mary suggests that:

NSW has a rigorous mathematics curriculum. For 15 years it has embedded numeracy in all key learning areas. Numeracy concepts therefore may be taught in context of a science or history lesson.

Still, it would appear to me that no matter how rigorous the curriculum, it fails if at the end of the day we don't have enough mathematicians. Could this be another case where we are in fact measuring the wrong thing? 

The release of the Baird Report into overseas students has attracted a fair bit of coverage. I have been following this one because of my feeling that the interlinked combination of problems in Australia's international education sector with changes to the skilled migration rules was likely to have significant economic impacts. I haven't had time yet to review the Baird report; it remains on my to do list.

The impasse between Government and Opposition of changes to the Youth Allowance Scheme - this has become the main means for funding university students - has been resolved. The Opposition's charge was that the proposed changes would disadvantage rural students. The resolution reached appears to be that the old approach would continue to apply in very remote, remote and outer regional areas. However, this has introduced a new problem.

In Saturday Morning Musings - Byzantium, ARIA and Australian public policy, I spoke of the problems created by the use and misuse of the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA). I followed this up with a second post, Problems with language and definition in public policy.

The central problem with ARIA is that the use of a mechanistic definition of remoteness that actually ignores geography leads to perverse results. This is already appearing in the changes to the Youth Allowance, with arguments that country students who are in fact in identical circumstances in all other respects - income, the need to move from home, travel time etc - now receive different treatment. I suspect that there was no way around it in this case, but it does illustrate the continuing problems with mechanistic management approaches.

Finishing on Youth Allowance, we recently experienced a practical example of the way in which YA rules create disincentives.

Eldest is on YA, but also works part time. When her earnings in any period pass a certain figure, her YA drops to zero. That's not a problem. She knows this and has been punctilious in reporting her weekly earnings. However, we recently hit a problem.

Helen decided to go overseas. To finance this, she increased her working hours for several months, knowing that this would take YA to zero. So she traded off her YA for extra work income, thus benefiting the tax payer. When her work income dropped below the cut-off, the YA would come back. However, there was something that she had not realised.

If your earnings exceed the YA cut-off for six consecutive fortnights, you actually lose not just the YA income, but YA itself. The assumption is, I think, that you are now working full time, not studying. So expected YA payments did not appear. Further, to apply for reinstatement of YA, Helen had to be back in the country.

From our viewpoint, the annoying thing is that had we known the rules, I accept that we should have known, Helen could simply have reduced her working hours by a small amount in the last fortnight. She actually traded off a small working gross for a much larger YA payment.

This simple example goes to the heart of a much bigger problem, the way in which the structure of benefits actually creates a disincentive to work. But that's another story.            

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