BY GEOFF SHARROCK THE AUSTRALIAN OCTOBER 19, 2012 12:00AM

I HAVE been asked why I have argued against critics of the Grattan Institute’s Graduate Winners report, while professing to oppose the funding cuts and fee increases it advocates.

While I don’t like the vibe of Graduate Winners it deserves a more serious debate. It can’t be refuted (or upheld) by invoking Education at a Glance, for several reasons.

First, OECD nations finance higher education with very different mixes of public and private spending, so Education at a Glance editors must be agnostic regarding the best mix.

Second, invoking OECD examples as best practice ignores our history of policy innovation. In the 1980s, John Dawkins did not return from an OECD trip to tell us that since HECS was all the rage in Paris, Australia must follow suit. Au contraire.

Third, despite the care Education at a Glance takes with its statistical tables, it’s clear that many countries are exceptional, working in local categories that don’t fit neatly into international ones. The dataset complexities are such that the more deeply we probe to tell apples from oranges, the more fruit salad we find.

In sum, the risk of specious comparisons is high. Every so often, due to technical error or cherry-picking or both, we get lies, damned lies and OECD comparisons.

Cherry-picking can arise when sectoral groups seek to promote better models, particularly better-funded ones, drawn from other countries. In the United States for example, education carries massive social freight in ethnically diverse, economically disparate communities.

But even with local progress evident, authorities may be lobbied with OECD-based reports that show US metrics failing to match those of some tiny Nordic monoculture, famed for its surplus of civic virtue, social cohesion and crime fiction.

Australia’s own tertiary sector setup is unusual enough to make such comparisons very tricky, turning us back to our own specific context.

In the Grattan reports view, the public and private benefits of Australian study are co-produced and are not zero-sum. So in certain cases, subsidies may be cut without public harm: if enough students have enough private incentive to enrol in certain fields, social demand for their expertise will be met. Here we should note that public funding itself is zero-sum: the public benefit of cuts is that savings can be spent on other public goods. This assumes, though, that total public spending can’t expand because tax revenue can’t expand; but it can.

And it implies that other areas of public spending, deemed to yield more net public benefit than study, are already cost-effective: but often (as in Defence) they aren’t.

A risky assumption in the Graduate Winners model is that with higher fees, students would make the choices they make now. But with higher fees HECS debt (already running to billions that may never be repaid) also rises, by converting student subsidies into student loans. For lower-income graduates this adds to economic stress, limiting choices on when they have children, and how much they can borrow.

There is evidence that fear of debt leads many students to choose lower-fee courses, even if their talents and interests lie elsewhere. This potentially wastes the nation’s talent.