The government shouldn’t try to predict ‘career winners’


Science is a ruthless and global profession. Research can occur anywhere and knowledge is quickly transferable. Jobs are advertised in a world-wide employment market and competition is ferocious. But in Australia, there seems to be a concerted push to sell science as a career. Be warned – this is an area where supply outstrips demand. It is an area with a few rock-star researchers but where most are poorly paid. So having Nobel Prize winners selling science as a career is a bit like having Russell Crowe or Cate Blanchett touring the country selling acting as a career. They are the exceptions not the norm.

Now, I have no trouble with successful scientists trying to interest school children in science. The problem starts if the government translates this into higher education policy. The government already tries to ‘pick winners’ in higher education, lowering the HECs fees for ‘in demand’ areas. Some of these areas are ‘in demand’ because most of the jobs are in poorly paid government areas (e.g. nursing and teaching). But over the university sector, government subsidies vary greatly by course. Business and law students get little subsidy. Science gets a relatively high subsidy (relative to cost). Why? Because the government seems to try and pick winners. It wants to encourage students to study in certain areas rather than other areas. However, the government’s record of ‘picking winners’ in terms of labour markets and careers is woeful. It would be better if the government simply set HECs as a flat subsidy (possibly on a percentage of cost basis) together with generous equity based scholarships.

Finally, a confession of ‘conflict of interest’. I was two years into my undergraduate science degree when I realised there were no jobs in my area and swapped across to economics. Best move I ever made!


5 Responses to "The government shouldn’t try to predict ‘career winners’"
  1. While supply outstrips demand overall, and in some disciplines, there are other disciplines where supply falls a long way short of demand. In particular, in mathematics and statistics there has been a shortage for several decades, and the problem is getting worse.

  2. I like this article very much. It reminds me of the failure of free market capitalism in which government intervention could exacerbate the issue and sub-optimal at best.

  3. Is an equity based scholarship:

    A) awarded based on need


    B) A scholarship which requires the recicpient to pay a proportion of future earnings to the scholarship provider (ie an equity like investment in the human capital of the recipient by the scholarship provider)

    I like both ideas.

  4. Daniel,

    It is difficult to assess the definition “based on need” (although I concur that option A is better). You would have all sort of people that come in and “game” the system and milk the cow in the pretext of equity-based needs ….

    Option B creates a sense of dependency to the scholarship provider. They themselves have their own agenda in the names of “education” or “for the greater good of society” (for whatever that definition is).

    I would propose instead to provide the “priviledged” with an equity-based scholarship that is directly linked to meaningful work experience/internship in which they take whilst performing their study. This will also develop their sense of financial independence and adulthood responsibility. In other words, the “priviledged” …. earns ….their scholarship with …. no-strings attached.

    Any comments are welcomed.

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