Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

Universities need charters of intellectual freedom

Jeremy Sammut

29 March 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

The latest politically correct madness at the University of Sydney — gender, race, sexuality, and class background quotas at the nation’s oldest debating club — is another demonstration of the extent to which ‘Unlearn U’ has mainlined postmodern identity politics.

It isn’t just the violation of core liberal principles of merit, equality of opportunity, and respect for the individual that is of concern — despite later day converts to the diversity agenda dismissing the importance of such ‘philosophical beliefs’.

What is also at stake are the foundational freedoms of speech and thought which universities ought to uphold as bastions of civil debate, rational discussion, and intellectual freedom.

Underpinning identity politics is an ideological agenda that seeks to shape, set and enforce the boundaries of acceptable, as opposed to so-called offensive ‘racist, patriarchial or homophobic or transphobic’ thought and speech.

This is creating a hostile and intolerant intellectual environment for students with the ‘wrong identity’: witness the Student Union-led a counter protest that took violent direct action to ‘unlearn’ conservative students who supported traditional marriage at Sydney University during last year’s marriage equality plebiscite campaign.

Australian universities are highly likely to follow the US path towards a full-blown campus free-speech crisis unless intellectual freedom is properly protected.

This should be the responsibility of university governors. But greater external accountability may be required, given the propensity of modern administrators to indulge in identity politics and view their mission as making universities less “old, white, male”.

Perhaps it is time to investigate requiring universites to sign up and comply with —  as a condition of taxpayer funding — a  charter of intellectual freedom, which could be based on the University of Chicago’s Stone Committee Report of 2015 on freedom of thought and expression at the university

Because the University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn.

These words would serve as worthy credo for all Australian universities — if they are to remain worthy of that name.

Doing the math

Jennifer Buckingham

29 March 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

In the warm-up before ABC’s Q&A a couple of weeks ago, panel members were asked which subject they liked least at school. Almost all nominated maths or chemistry. Few people would be surprised at this. Maths gets a bad rap, and many school students drop it like a scorching spud as soon as they get the chance.

Media reported this week that the proportion of students taking higher level maths for the NSW Higher School Certificate has declined over the past 10 years, continuing a long-term trend across Australia. This is despite the greater academic prestige that tends to be attached to what is now called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) — as pointed out by NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes in a speech that attracted heated debate.

The drop in students’ maths skills is not just an academic problem. A report released by Engineers Australia says the drop in participation in STEM subjects at a level sufficient to allow studying engineering at university is affecting Australia’s capacity to produce qualified engineers, and resulting in an over-reliance on skilled migration, which carries some risks. Permanent and temporary migration accounts for almost two thirds of new engineers, who are crucial in numerous areas of the economy, both present and future.

Engineers Australia recommends that students be ‘encouraged’ to study advanced and intermediate maths and science to Year 12. Unfortunately, encouragement is not enough; the seeds of participation in high cognitive demand courses are sown early in school.

The typical response to this sort of recommendation is to make maths and science more appealing by using ‘hands-on’, inquiry approaches to teaching; but this is misguided. Study after study has shown that explicit instruction is more effective, and is more likely to give children a sense of self-efficacy (these days called ‘growth mind set’) and confidence in their abilities. Once children have achieved mastery through methodical and sequential teaching, inquiry can be useful — but not before.

Preoccupation with inquiry learning as the solution to all our educational problems is associated with the cliché that traditional, teacher-directed approaches are an out-dated “industrial model” of education that is unsuited to the modern world.

The irony of this is not lost on cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham who put it this way: “Apparently schools are bad because 100 years ago evil corporations duped them into prepping workers for factories. And the solution is to emphasize cooperative, creative work, because that’s what present-day, non-evil corporations say is needed for jobs of the future. Got it.”

Do ice cream sales increase shark attacks?

Matthew O’Donnell

29 March 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

Labor MP Andrew Leigh’s study on data around effective company tax rates and employment shows incomplete analysis that mistakes correlation for causation.

But a correlation does not mean it’s a cause. For example, as ice cream sales increase, there is a correlation in the increased rate of shark attacks. However, the rise in shark attacks is not caused by ice cream sales, but by the unstated factor of warm weather sending more people to the beach.

Mr Leigh’s paper says higher effective company tax rates are correlated with companies hiring more workers. But common sense suggests it is highly unlikely that higher company taxes cause companies to hire more workers.

Clearly other unstated factors are at play. A plausible one is that more profitable firms tend to have higher effective company tax rates, but if they are focused on growth will generally need more workers. Hencer, these firms are more likely to hire new staff for reasons that have nothing to do with company tax rates.

And this is the problem with incomplete analysis, you can tell very different stories by making a few leaps of logic.

To provide another illustration of how incomplete analysis can create varying conclusions let’s add the following economically defensible assumption to Mr Leigh’s analysis: the marginal deadweight cost of company tax is higher, the higher is the level of the tax.  That is, reducing a company’s tax rate from 30% to 29% is more beneficial to new investment than reducing a company’s tax rate from 20% to 19%.

So what can we conclude from our new story? Companies paying higher tax rates hire more workers.  Companies with higher tax rates get more benefit from a tax cut. Ergo sum, the company tax cut is actually more beneficial to employment than even the Liberal Party is currently claiming.