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.

In defence of the HSC

Blaise Joseph

08 November 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Undoubtedly, the Higher School Certificate is hard. But final exams are not intended to be easy — to be some sort of rubber stamp for having sat in a classroom. They are intended to assess how much you have learned.

HSC exams finish on Monday for Year 12 students in NSW, and presumably so will the ‘student stress’ which we hear so much about at this time of the year all around Australia.

Yes, exams are stressful. ATAR scores (of which Year 12 exam results make up a significant part) are not everything and should be kept in perspective, though they do have consequences for student careers. Students gain access to greater opportunities if they perform well, and this inevitably creates some anxiety (if that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because it’s otherwise known as ‘everyday life’ for most people).

Despite the clichés of ‘critical thinking’ and ‘problem solving’, doing the hard yards at school to acquire deep levels of content knowledge in the core academic subjects remains as valuable as ever.

And exams are a valuable — a crucial — step in the education process. Do you want someone who has never passed a biology exam performing a heart operation? Or someone who has never passed a maths exam designing bridges or flood mitigation systems?

Exams in school also help students prepare for further study and the normal pressures of the workplace. Shielding children from tests — while well-intentioned — does them a disservice.

The HSC is arguably the most rigorous Year 12 credential in Australia and the interim NSW curriculum review acknowledged that the HSC is widely described as “world-class.” Of course, it can be improved, but we should be careful of massive changes that aren’t evidence-based.

HSC results are currently derived half from examinations and half from school-based assessments.

A proposal from the interim NSW curriculum review is to have less emphasis on exams and mandate that each student does a major project. But the problem with take-home projects like this is the lack of accountability and equity — students from more advantaged backgrounds will have greater access to help from parents and tutors.

Another recent thought bubble is to replace the ATAR with a “learner profile” focussing on extra-curricular activities rather than academic achievement to get into university. This would be especially unfair for high-achieving disadvantaged students. Advantaged students tend to have more extra-curricular opportunities, so would gain an unfair benefit in competing for university places against disadvantaged students.

Exams may not be pleasant for students; however, they are the crucial equaliser in education.

Perils of the new Keynesians

Tom Switzer

08 November 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

This week’s weak retail figures add momentum to the emerging intellectual consensus: that in order to kick start the sluggish economy, governments must stimulate activity through expansionary fiscal policy financed at ultra-low borrowing costs. The balanced budget fetish belongs to another era, we are told, and governments should loosen the purse strings.

Call it the ‘secular stagnation’ thesis, popularised by former Obama White House economist Larry Summers. In Australia, the school’s leading advocates include former RBA deputy governor Stephen Grenville and former Labor prime minister Paul Keating, while RBA governor Phil Lowe also displays hints of this analysis in his public statements.

However, the policy prescriptions from the new Keynesians — including entrenched public borrowing — are not convincing.

Loosening the purse strings would almost certainly lead to wasteful spending, more cost over-runs in infrastructure projects, and a bigger tax burden down the track as government inevitably is forced once again to pull in its horns.

To the extent that government can stimulate growth, it’s through structural reforms that improve the investment climate: Cut red tape. Reduce workplace regulation. Fast-track tax cuts. Fix the state-based payroll taxes and stamp duties on property that stifle labour mobility. Make the 30 per cent company tax rate more internationally competitive. Break the construction union’s monopoly power. Restore monetary policy to its appropriate role of maintaining price stability. And if governments indulge in more infrastructure spending, ensure it is money better targeted: for instance, more user-charging on the roads.

With the right policies, an investment boom will drive productivity gains and job creation that will flow to higher wages and lift consumer spending. Government pump priming and more deficits and debt will not deliver secular growth. As Gary Banks, a senior fellow at CIS and former Productivity Commission head, argues, only structural supply-side reform can unleash what Keynes called animal spirits and give our long bull run a second wind.

This is an edited extract from an opinion published in the Australian Financial Review as Keating finds his inner Keynes


Fear of losing autonomy key aged care issue

Jessica Borbasi

08 November 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Even before the royal commission, no one in Australia wanted to go into aged care. And little wonder. The interim report on aged care revealed an array of serious problems.

For far too many older Australians, the aged care system provokes the fear of being abandoned and dehumanised by an unsatisfactory system that appears to value continued existence to the almost complete exclusion of considerations of quality of life.

Aged care fosters dependence and strips autonomy by disallowing personal affects, enforcing rules and regulations, essentially rendering someone devoid of what makes them an individual.

For example at any given moment today, somewhere in Australia, there will be a bed-bound 80-something year old person being admitted from a nursing home into an emergency department, probably on the orders of their son or daughter (and probably for good reason).

They will receive the best treatment available — treatment which in some cases will merely render them more incapacitated while extending their life for another few days or months.

Another manifestation of this fear of losing autonomy, as well as the failure to address care for chronic diseases, is the push to legalise euthanasia. Indeed, loss of autonomy was cited as the primary reason people accessed euthanasia in the US state of Oregon.

Assisted dying is currently on the agendas of both the Western Australia and Queensland governments, following implementation in Victoria earlier this year. Fear of an undignified, painful death is also the driving force behind this legislation.

Yet few if any elderly Australians have an advance care plan to guide decisions about treatment goals, and perhaps fewer are seen by a palliative care physician despite chronic disease or symptom burden.

It is ironic that modern medicine has achieved such great ages by way of life-sustaining treatments — and yet people are looking to government to provide death on demand.

But we can and should fix broken medical systems, as well as alleviating the fears of the elderly, before legalising assisted dying. The medical system more broadly needs to balance considerations of quality of life, with the focus on extending quantity of life.

The royal commission has a long way to go in ensuring aged care is synonymous with genuine compassion and independence. The medical system has a long way to go in ensuring people live and die better not just longer. But until it does — we should not facilitate peopling taking their own lives in fear of a system we have created.