Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Warwick University PLC 2

Fair play, decency, contrite apology, isn't that what you would expect from Warwick University? Not a £50,000 legal bill for defending a frivolous disciplinary case you have successfully rebutted. I think  I'll add Warwick to my growing list of UK "universities" that I don't want to have anything to do with.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Strike! (or action short of)

November 6th will soon be upon us. That is the date upon which UCU members have voted to commence industrial action over the latest round of changes to their pension arrangements. Initially it will be action short of a strike involving a refusal to take part in assessment related activities.

My feeling is that this is going to be a very unpleasant dispute with a good chance of escalation into an all out strike. Personally I'd rather not be involved in it. But I don't see any alternative, other than for employees to  simply say and do nothing as the employers take away up to 25% of the pension that they were encouraged to believe they would get when they entered the profession. I don't understand how anyone with a modicum of self-respect could do that.

In essence the employers have presented their proposals as a fait accompli. They have the voting strength on the USS Board to simply impose their will. Given this fact it is not surprising that they are not willing to negotiate. They are also apparently not willing to discuss or even in some cases reveal the details of the assumptions they have made in their projections of the scale of the USS deficit. Employees have to like it or lump it even when it is revealed that some of these assumptions are absurd (you can translate that as chosen to support the course of action they are committed to).

At the root of the problem is the current yield on gilts. USS wants to reduce future risk (to the employers) by gradually shifting the balance of its holdings from stocks to government securities. In an era of 'quantitative easing' yields on gilts are currently negative in real terms. If you want to make the size of the funding gap look scary then this is an excellent time to assume that the current state of affairs will continue into the future. It also helps if you assume that wage growth will be twice the historical average. 

It seems obvious to me and many other colleagues that the employers as a whole are not acting in good faith. To be fair, some employers - and my own is one of them - have questioned the figures and have requested more  transparency but I doubt this will make much difference.

What UK universities can or cannot afford in terms of pension arrangements for their staff is not ultimately determined by the market for the simple reason that their income is not, for the most part, determined by the market. It is a matter of politics, argument and discussion rather than technical imperatives.

In all industrial disputes people suffer, that is regrettable but unavoidable. It is what happens when negotiation and compromise are unilaterally  abandoned. It is highly likely that some testosterone fueled employers will seek to impose punitive sanctions on staff who take action short of striking. Most likely this will take the form of refusing to pay any salary at all to those that refuse to perform any part of their contractual duties. 

Pinsent Masons have been advising the employers on the legal aspects of their likely responses to industrial action. You can read their advice at the bottom of this document. It makes fascinating reading. 

 Part of their opinion reads as follows:

"...one crucial factor for the total withholding of pay is that the employer must tell the employee that he/she is not expected to attend work if he/she is not prepared to undertake his/her full duties."

Thus if an employer  withholds 100% of an employee's salary because of their participation in an assessment boycott and then claims in court that their attendance at their place of work and the performance of all their other duties was purely voluntary, they are unlikely to get away with it, unless they can show that they explicitly instructed the employee to stay away from work and desist from performing all their duties.

So the price of punitive sanctions is likely to be escalation of the dispute. In effect the employers will be forced to declare a lock-out of part of their workforce. Given the number of hot headed macho managers ensconced in Senate Houses around the country you will appreciate why I think this dispute will become very unpleasant.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

A Fortunate Man 2 - RIP Chelly Halsey

After reading the John Berger book I mentioned in my last post I looked up his age and was surprised: born in 1926 he is just three years younger than Chelly Halsey who died two weeks ago. Yet to me they seem to be part of completely different generations. 

How odd is our sense of time and how odd is our perceptions of class.  Berger's  plummy tones, now suffused with occasional gallic notes, still mark him out as a minor public schoolboy, as indeed he was (St Edward's, Oxford). I'd wager that Chelly's accent was unplaceable except to a linguistic expert. Educated, certainly, but not exactly BBC English, nor obviously regional. Maybe that is the fate of all us that come from the Midlands south of Birmingham, neither one thing nor the other. I've only ever met one person that could accurately place my accent. He was a professional linguist & identified my hometown with uncanny accuracy.

I've good reason to be very grateful to Chelly as he interviewed me for a studentship at Nuffield College. Turning up at the lodge I was directed to the office of the Bursar's secretary - at that time Chelly combined a University Professorship with the role of College Bursar and Keeper of the College Gardens! There I gave myself away. I had no idea how to pronounce Chelly's surname, so I opted for my regional default, Halsey with a short 'a'. The lady behind the desk looked down her nose at me and affected not to understand. After a short pause she said: "Do you mean Professor Hawlsey?". I knew I had failed the first part of the entrance test.

After that things could only get better. I sat in Chelly's room, Chelly behind his desk in jacket and tie and John Goldthorpe almost at right angles to me in a safari suit. The room was impossibly large - LSE and Imperial College academics inhabited rabbit hutches - but they seemed to have me trapped in a pincer movement. But then something strange happened. Chelly talked and talked and talked. I don't remember now what he talked about but I do remember thinking: "When is this going to end?" and "When will they ask me some questions?". They did eventually ask me a few questions but I don't remember what they were and then it was all over. Chelly saw me out and we chatted for a minute or so in the entrance to his staircase. It was a wonderful Spring day, the sun was shining and Nuffield looked like a Cotswold picture postcard. I think we were talking about student accommodation and suddenly he said: "And when you come here...". Only later did I realize the significance of that sentence. In Oxford things were done obliquely and the right sort of chap should understand  what is said and what is not said.

We were all in awe of Chelly. He and Eric Batstone presided over the Wednesday afternoon Sociology seminar which in those days was aimed mainly at MPhil students. Both were smokers and the upper reaches of the room quickly filled  with dense clouds of tobacco smoke. When Chelly gave a paper he talked without notes, in complete sentences without hesitation. His style was authoritative yet conversational. Listening to him was not quite like listening to a favourite Uncle, but there was an air of intimacy about it that drew you in and made you feel he was addressing you personally. Of course part of it was theatrical, but there was hard earned craft in it nonetheless and even in his eighties he could still give a pretty impressive performance.

As a student I didn't actually have much to do with Chelly and he retired shortly after I left the college. When I came back to Nuffield from time to time we'd share a lunch table and talk about LSE in the 1950s,  Palo Alto, Ed Shils, Cobbett and Conrad.

With the exception of George and Teresa Smith's appreciation, none of the obituaries capture much of the essence of the man and several contain glaring inaccuracies. The Daily Telegraph's unsigned effort is little more than the kind of bitter polemic one would associate with the Daily Hate Mail. Though several mention his work with Jean Floud and F. M. Martin none manage to refer to the fundamental insight of that work, that the fairness of selection for secondary school based on objective tests of ability is undermined as soon as schools start to  supplement test scores with interviews. An old battle in a long forgotten war? Admissions tutors at Oxbridge Colleges would like you to think so.


Monday, 27 October 2014

A Fortunate Man 1

On Saturday I picked up for a trifle a copy of John Berger and Jean Mohr's A Fortunate Man. I'd not come across the book before but I've a soft spot for John Berger and had a few loose coins in my pocket. In this collaboration Berger wrote the text and Mohr took the photographs which, as you might expect, don't just illustrate the words but constitute a visual essay in their own right.

The subject, the fortunate man,  is a GP  with a practice in the Forest of Dean called John Eskell (given the name John Sassall in the book) that Berger got to know while living in St Briavel in the late 50s and early 60s. Berger writes about Sassall's life as a naval surgeon, a country doctor, the community he serves, his approach to general practice and  gives his interpretation of what makes him who he is and do what he does. It is, in a sense, a sociological study of the general practitioner with an N of 1. Of course being Berger there is more to it than that. Some of it is Sartrean hokey with an admixture of Freudian bunkum, though the latter is more defensible because Eskell/Sassall is a believer in psychotherapy himself and sees it as one of the weapons he uses to treat the whole patient. Some consists of outlandish comparisons with Conrad's novels of the sea.

In both text and photographs we are allowed to accompany Sassall on his rounds, sit in his consulting room and learn about his hopes and fears. He sees people into the world and some of them he sees out. In a telling metaphor Berger calls him the clerk of the community's records. 

There are one or two revelations in these records like the story of being called  by an elderly woman's husband who is worried that his wife is bleeding down below. Sassall has known the couple for years but on attendance he discovers  that the "wife" has male genitalia and that her problem is haemorrhoids. Nothing more is said just as nothing had ever been said in the traditional, inward looking, community itself. 

The last photograph in the book shows Sassall walking up a steep track to his isolated house. He has his back to us and appears to be exiting stage left. Nothing is really  concluded and he is given the last words: "Whenever I am reminded of death - and it happens every day - I think of my own, and this makes me try to work harder". There is a terrible poignancy about this. In 1982 Eskell shot himself. He was 63 years of age.

I  was astonished to learn that A Fortunate Man is regarded by the medical profession as one of the most insightful accounts of the GP's life. You can see some of the photographs here.



Thursday, 16 October 2014

Freudian Slip

The Wiki on Baron Freud of Eastry makes very interesting reading. It tells you most of what you need to know about the man the Conservative Party believes is a fit and proper person to be an Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. You couldn't make it up (assuming Wikipedia hasn't).

Friday, 3 October 2014

Warwick University PLC

It's hardly a secret that the management of Warwick University have returned to what is more or less the founding creed of the institution, divide, rule and suppress dissent. If you thought that universities were islands of free expression in a world of corporate bullshit think again. Dennis Hayes explains here. And make sure you control that subversive body language.

What surprises me is how little we've heard from Warwick faculty about all of this. Has the university imposed a campus wide gagging order? Or is fear enough?

So who is going to win? Macho management or common sense? Let's give Sparks the last word.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

How sociologists make themselves absurd

I'm struggling to articulate a half-formed thought in this post so you may prefer to skip it and wait  until I manage to state it more sharply.

I was struck yesterday when I was skimming the replies to Lucas and Szatrowski's (LS) article on QCA  by the unwarranted assumptions that were being made about what LS believe about  quantification in empirical social science. It reminded me a little of some aspects of my exchange of views last year with David Byrne (here, here and here) though I'll readily admit that the intellectual quality of our "debate" was not nearly so elevated as the one that LS are involved in. I also see a connection with  some of the highly polemical pieces on the use of statistics in the social sciences written by Stephen Gorard (see for instance here and here).

The common thread is something like this:  the protagonists are not necessarily anti-quantitative but they seize on some aspect of poor practice that is widespread in the journals - inappropriate applications of  RCTs, unbelievable instrumental variables, misunderstandings of the meaning of confidence intervals, silly conclusions drawn from  null-hypothesis testing, giant fishing expeditions, enormous variable races, fatuous assumptions about causality - and then instead of drawing the conclusion that students and researchers need to be better trained, referees better informed and editors more sophisticated in their appreciation of what applied statistics can and can't do, they infer that the problem is not with the users or with the misapplication of the standard tools but is with the tools themselves which must be discarded and replaced with something else. 

Thus we get remarks like:

 "This paper confirms that confidence intervals are not a generally useful measure or estimate of anything in practice." Gorard

"The conventional quantitative programme in the social sciences has told us very little of real interest." Byrne

So the baby gets chucked out with the dirty bath water and the innocent are encouraged to reject the conventional tools before they have even had an opportunity to learn what they are good for.

So my puzzle is this:  why do apparently intelligent people choose to espouse such extreme views?

Let's set aside one possible explanation - that they are blathering about things they don't really understand. Maybe it's true, maybe it isn't: I'm not going to go there.

Another possible explanation is the incentive structure in social science publishing. All the incentives point in the direction of making big bold statements that catch the eye, contradict established positions and have a clear novelty take home message. Recommendations for cautious, incremental changes and improvements tend to be ignored  in favour of the shock of the new. Thus an article that argues quite a few people don't really understand what confidence intervals are good for is not as attractive to an editor as one that argues confidence intervals are completely useless. If you want to catch the eye in sociology then waving a banner declaring 'Revolution Now' is more likely to help you build a career than one that says 'Let's try to improve things a little bit'.