Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Want more mathematics and science teachers? Try something else, anything else.

A key part of Kevin Rudd’s promised “education revolution” has come under attack from a former top Labor advisor.

The Labor leader last month promised to spend $111 million cutting the Higher Education Contribution charge for university students studying maths and science as a way of attacking the shortage of qualified maths and science schoolteachers.

Under Mr Rudd’s plan the HECS charge facing maths and science students would fall from $7,118 to $3,998 per year. He has also promised to have the government meet half of the HECS repayments of maths and science graduates for up to 5 years if they take up employment in an occupation such as teaching.

Economist Bruce Chapman of the Research School of Social Sciences at the ANU designed the HECS scheme in 1988 while working as an advisor to the Labor education minister John Dawkins. He later worked as an advisor to the Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating.

In a review of the Kevin Rudd proposal to be published today Professor Chapman says that despite Labor’s claims, cutting in the HECS charge is “unlikely to have discernible effects on enrolments in the short term”...

In 1997 the incoming Howard government adjusted all of the HECS charges, more than doubled the charge for students studying law. Professor Chapman says there was hardly any change in enrolment numbers as a result.

“This does not auger well for the likelihood of [HECS cuts] being an effective instrument in the short term to increase the supply of maths and science education students”, his paper says.

“A significant amount of research over the years has consistently found that changes to HECS, even large changes to HECS, have only tiny effects on the private financial return to having a degree.”

Professor Chapman also points out that in Australia the composition of enrolments at universities depends not on student demand but on the number of places offered. “The composition of enrolments is essentially agreed between the government and individual universities, and there is not a lot of change between years.”