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In the media: Graduate earning power study goof admitted

Australian Financial Review, 18 September 2015

By Tim Dodd

One of Australia’s top economic research centres has withdrawn its controversial finding that graduates of the elite Group of Eight universities earn less through their careers than people who study at less prestigious institutions.

The Melbourne Institute of Economic and Social Research blamed a computer coding error for the sensational, but incorrect claim, that riled the top sandstone universities.

In its July report on the highly regarded Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, the institute said graduates from the middle-ranking Innovative Research Universities grouping – comprising James Cook, Charles Darwin, Griffiths, La Trobe, Flinders and Murdoch universities – earned about 15 per cent more than Group of Eight graduates.

It also said graduates of the five technology universities belonging to the Australian Technology Network – UTS, RMIT, University of SA, QUT, and Curtin – earned about 11 per cent more than Group of Eight graduates.

The result sat oddly with the fact that the Group of Eight institutions – the universities of Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland, Adelaide and Western Australia, as well as Monash, UNSW and the ANU – are the most sought after and attract the cream of Australia’s year 12 students. In an erratum issued on Wednesday, principal research fellow Associate Professor Roger Wilkins admitted the error.

“Contrary to the findings presented in the report, the models show that graduates of Go8 universities do not earn significantly less than graduates of ATN universities, holding other factors constant,” he said.

The corrected figures also show that, among male graduates, the earnings of those from the six-strong IRU grouping are not significantly different to the Group of Eight graduates. Among females, graduates from the IRU group earn about 17 per cent less than Group of Eight graduates.

Professor Wilkins also corrected another finding of the July paper – that earnings of graduates from the Group of Eight were not significantly different to those from the six institutions in the Regional Universities Network, which are generally regarded to be in the least prestigious tier of universities.

His revised figures show that, among males, Regional Universities Network graduates earn about 33 per cent less than those from the Group of Eight through their careers.

Group of Eight chief executive Vicki Thomson said Professor Wilkins’ admission had vindicated the group’s view that the original figures were wrong. “While we are pleased that the data errors have now been publicly acknowledged there is no doubt their public release caused brand health issues for Australia’s eight leading universities – a group that is consistently the highest rated in world rankings,” she said. Ms Thomson said several representations had been made to Professor Wilkins about the data before it was published “and those representations were not acted upon”. She said the Group of Eight looked forward to working with the institute on the next HILDA report “to ensure its accuracy”.

Professor Wilkins apologised for the error and said it was unfortunate it was not picked up. He said the coding errors were discovered when the computer program that produced the data was reviewed following advice from colleagues at the University of Queensland’s Institute of Social Science Research that they were unable to replicate some of the original findings.
Source: Australian Financial Review

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