catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Should the boomers f* off?

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We’ve had a boomer bashing baby boomers. We have had a Generation X-er bashing boomers. And now we have Generation Y getting in on the act, with 25 year old former NUS activist Ryan Heath publishing his tastefully-titled tome, Please Just F* Off: It’s Our Turn Now. All those f* this, f* that student protest chants clearly stuck in his mind.

Like Mark Davis’s mid-1990s book Ganglands, Heath alleges that boomers are hogging the good jobs and media gigs, holding back talented youth. Like him, though for different reasons, I won’t be sorry to see a lot of the people who started their careers in the 1970s pensioned off. But I’ve never really bought the generational discrimination argument in the media. On TV, youth counts in your favour. And even in the print media it’s not that hard to get space. That someone with James McConvill’s modest talents can be a regular on the opinion pages shows just how easy it is for an under-30 to get a run, and Heath himself used to pop up in the SMH occasionally. If he’s 25 now, he must only have been 20 or 21 at the time.

To be convincing on generational issues in the media, it’s not enough to point to how many boomers are still in print. You need to point to the youthful talent that isn’t getting a run. That’s proved to be rather hard to do. Tim Watts’ OzProspect think-tank was intended to bring new voices into public view, but while some of the faces were fresh, the ideas weren’t. They were all within the comfort zone of contemporary soft-leftism. There’s nothing wrong with giving these people space on the opinion pages. Readers want to have their views reinforced. But these new voices did not make a case for pushing the regulars aside.

Heath’s book is a case in point. It isn’t terrible, as the genre of left-of-centre youth writing goes (he even says he supports capitalism, though of course he wants it to be more ‘ethical’). But except for the fact that you are not allowed to say ‘f***’ or ‘dickhead’ or get apostrophes wrong on the editorial pages, it reads like a very long tabloid opinion piece, thrown together against a tight deadline with minimum research or thought.

Take for example his chapter on HECS, which reflects the NUS orthodoxy that it’s a bad thing: “there is something morally wrong about a situation where a government can saddle you with debt that you will never fully repay.” Heath is so keen to score points against HECS that he doesn’t even worry about whether these points are consistent or not. Despite claiming it is morally wrong to incur debt to pay for education, he informs us that he acquired a series of credit cards and that ‘my credit card debt was never greater than my HECS debt’. This, he tells us, ‘was a sustainable way to get a better lifestyle quickly’. It does rather undermine our pity for debt-ridden youth. He argues that the 2004 [sic – 2005] increases in HECS will cause great pain, yet notes that Melbourne University will raise just $5.4 million from them. So they both will cost a lot of money and won’t cost a lot of money (actually, they will cost students more than he claims, since the increases applied only to new students).

And then there is Heath’s extrapolation fallacy, asserting that if HECS goes up as much in percentage terms in the next 15 years as in the last 15 years it will hit $50,000 a year by 2020. Of course the percentage increases over the last 15 years were high only because the base was so low, and prices still so cheap that there was no market resistance. Full-fee courses have increased much less in percentage terms, and that will be the pattern for Commonwealth-supported courses too once their prices reach market value.

Not all his points are without merit, however. He wonders why it costs universities so much to deliver often rather unimpressive services. University finances are something of a mystery, even to those of us who work in them. But there is little doubt that they are inefficient ways of educating most undergraduates, as co-producing teaching with research is very costly. There is a way of tackling this: letting students take their subsidies and loans to private competitors more focused on undergraduates. NUS, however, has bitterly opposed any ‘voucher’ proposal. And that was the organisation to which Heath devoted his student years.

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Written by Admin

February 5, 2006 at 9:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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