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Caveat Emptor

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

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Quotas for the working class?

Sonia Sodha has a piece in yesterday's Guardian advocating the introduction of quotas for working-class students at Oxbridge & (I think) other Russell group type universities. While the motivating sentiment is laudable the idea itself is terrible.

Firstly, what is the relevant population that we will use to determine what the quota should be? The whole of the 18-19 year old birth cohort? The 18-19 year old birth cohort that applies to university (accepting that a large proportion of working-class kids will already have selected themselves out)? The 18-19 year old birth cohort that applies to Oxbridge or the Russell Group (also self selected)?

And then who will decide who is and who is not working class? At the moment there are only 3 real alternatives all of which have disadvantages. 

Firstly, self-description. HEFCE collects data on the parental occupation supplied by the applicants to HE. This data is not of spectacularly high quality, large amounts of it are missing or unusable (and not in the public domain). I would imagine that if you supplied a motive for being less than honest in the self-report its validity will not improve. 

Then there is free school meals, a favourite  of educational researchers. It's better than nothing, but there are a lot of working-class kids who do not have free school meals. It is also the case that to identify the really deprived you need to know about the length of time free school meals have been received (families move in and out of poverty - and in any case being poor is not the same as being working-class).

Finally there are various geographical area based measures that are often - in my opinion quite dishonestly - passed off as being measures of individual level social class. Unless the geographical areas are homogenous in their class characteristics, which is a big if, then these would allow the children of the local GP who happened to live in the deprived inner city to be classified as working-class.

OK, so we would have to  up our game with regard to measurement but I guess something could be done. However I think there is actually a much more serious problem. Once you start introducing quotas there is no logical point at which you should stop.

At the moment a disproportionate number of females get into UK universities. Obviously that should stop. The disproportion is particularly large in the working-class, so actually we would need quotas for gender and class combined. But why stop there? 

Though some ethnic groups  are underrepresented at Oxbridge and Russell Group universities, others are not.   If you condition on A level grades it turns out that in the middle of the distribution most (but not all) ethnic minority groups are considerably more likely to attend a university than the white British population. Does that mean we need quotas for white kids with mediocre grades?

In the bad old days some American Ivy League universities had quotas for Jews (to keep them out). My guess is that  Jews are disproportionately represented in elite UK universities. I'd hazard a guess that the same is true of British born Chinese (but I'm less sure about this). In both cases the absolute numbers are tiny. But if we are playing the proportion game then what is the logical ground for saying  that quotas should not apply? 

All I can see developing is a tangled web of exceptions, special pleading and lobbying with whoever shouts loudest  getting special treatment and an ever expanding set of groups to whom quotas should be applied. And once you start to go down these lines the potential for  rather ugly stuff to happen becomes quite real.

Sodha starts off her piece with a story about the Norwegian men's football team agreeing to contribute some of their revenues to raise the remuneration of the women's team. I agree that this is a great advert for Nordic social solidarity values. Her point, which is not unreasonable is that  redistribution creates winners and losers and in a zero-sum game the losers are inevitably those at the top. The point is that quotas for the socially underprivileged also imply quotas for the socially privileged.

But there is another, more inconvenient, point about the football analogy. As far as I'm aware neither the Norwegian men's or women's football squad have quotas to make them socially representative of the 18-35 year old population or even of the population that would like to play international football.  In international football there are no arguments at the moment for contextually adjusted attainment measures. Perhaps we should seriously consider it. Anyone prepared to lobby FIFA for a handicapping system? I'd suggest making each German player wear a 10 kilo belt should even things up a bit, oh and 20 kilos for Lionel Messi.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

We need to talk about...Oxbridge

So the annual Oxbridge bashing season has opened again. Some of the things that are being said  are sensible others are well meaning but misguided. Of course there will be some who will just dismiss anything I have to say as obviously parti pris. So be it, there are beliefs that are impervious to reason and evidence and I entirely understand that it can be a great source of emotional satisfaction to stick it to those  you think are the privileged source of everything that is wrong in the world. 

I am, unashamedly, a white, middle-class male sitting in an Oxbridge College. Put that on the negative side of the balance sheet. On the positive side, I was not an Oxbridge undergraduate (and have never felt disadvantaged by it), not from an affluent and certainly not an educated home and not from the South-East.  I have spent a significant amount of time working in non Oxbridge institutions of  higher learning . But what is perhaps my most important claim on your time is that my proposals for the UK higher education system are far more radical than anything that David Lammy is interested in. My point is that  if you are serious about tackling the inequities that people attribute to Oxbridge then you have to be serious about radical change of the whole university system. And in my view if you aren't, then you are probably just engaged in something akin to virtue signalling.

So let's start at the beginning. Let's assume that there is an ideal number of minority and working-class students that should be admitted to undergraduate degrees and that this number is consistently being undershot.  The question then is: why is this happening? 

There are broadly speaking two answers: 1) Oxbridge is doing something wrong; 2) Society (ie people, students, teachers, parents) is doing something wrong. Let's think about each of these in turn. For the first we need to focus on the admission process and for the moment we will start at the point potential students turn up at the door and treat that as given (it isn't but I want to deal with arguments about access and outreach in a moment). 

If you want to win the lottery you have to buy a ticket. If you want to know whether the admission system is fair you have to start with the (self-selected) pool that  apply. And you have to base your judgment on the information that the candidates have about the university and the admission tutors have about the candidates. Unfortunately in the vast number of cases that does not include information about the A level grades that candidates actually have. The relevant information is the predicted grades. Knowledge of actual grades is important for other sorts of judgements, like for instance whether the outcome of the whole process is in some global sense just, but that is not the question that concerns me right now. Confusing these two issues is, I think a source of much mischief and tends to promote wishful thinking. So let's get concrete. To read Natural Sciences at Cambridge you probably need to have predicted grades in the region of A*A*A to get over the first hurdle. Anyone that doesn't will, most likely, get chopped. I shouldn't need to state that there is a social gradient to predicted grades.

What happens next depends a bit on which course you apply to. For the most popular subjects, for example PPE at Oxford, there is a written aptitude test. Setting aside considerations of disadvantages in  opportunities to prepare for these tests I have little doubt that the evidence shows that these are formally fair in the sense that candidates are invited for interview on the basis of their scores and on no other basis and that the exams are marked in a way that reveals nothing about the candidate other than their performance in the test.

So up to this point there is little room for admission tutor discretion, bias, discrimination, favouritism or whatever you want to call it. Things are not so clear cut at the next stage, the interview. It is here that evidence is lacking, and probably will always be lacking. Certainly efforts are made to try and ensure that the interview process is fair. Are they successful?  My conclusion is that views differ. I have heard admissions tutors say in essence that the world would come to an end if  interviews are not carried out, that they are completely unbiased (except against the stupid) and they have an infallible ability to pick winners. For what it is worth I don't believe them and I think there is  prima  facie a good case for abolishing interviews. However even if we were to do so the numbers are such that it would hardly make any difference to the proportion of ethnic minority and working-class candidates admitted. Yes a few more will get in and every little no doubt helps, but the reality is that most have been eliminated or eliminated themselves much further back in the pipeline. By and large the admissions process works as it is supposed to. You might not like it and prefer things to work in some other way (please specify) but with the possible exception of the interview stage it is not manifestly unfair in the sense that the outcomes are arbitrary.

I can now hear a large  number of worthies groaning at my naivety. Haven't you heard of contextualized admissions I can hear them saying. Well yes I have and I'm sceptical about their ability to make that much of a difference (though of course, again, every little helps). The way I see it there are two problems. Firstly we need better data to make sensible judgments about the academic potential of those who because of manifest disadvantage are not predicted to get the top grades at the end of secondary school but who, if given a chance, will flourish at university.  And secondly we need to be realistic about what the outcome will be of admitting students below the standard tariff. 

To be clear, I have no doubt that worthy underachievers exist and that serious efforts should be  made to find them. The problem is that the information admissions tutors have to go on is imperfect. In practice it is  difficult to discern whether the AAB student studying in a school which does not routinely send pupils to university let alone Oxbridge is really a potential genius who has battled through despite multiple social and economic handicaps or is just the not especially bright offspring of the local dentist who sends his kids to the community school next door. For what it is worth, my experience of trying to recruit access students at another university has made me rather cynical. We found it very difficult to recruit such students with slightly reduced grades from obviously disadvantaged homes and were, shall we say, flexible in how we interpreted disadvantage. But that was in the 1990s so maybe things  have changed. I don't know.

The real problem is this. Without other changes, which universities may not be prepared to entertain, admitting students on contextualized grades will lead in many cases to failure. Not universally, and not in the subject areas with rather elastic and ill-defined criteria of achievement - I'm thinking about subjects in the arts,  humanities and some of the social sciences.

I don't believe that getting ABB rather than the AAA required for BA  Post-Modern Cake Making at St Joan's is going to lead to failure in the year 1 exams. But I'm pretty sure that being admitted to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences with ABB will pretty much lead to failure. The reasons are not hard to understand. STEM subjects rely on the accumulation of knowledge and the mastery of technique. If you haven't done that then you can't advance to the next level. If progress is linear then not making the grade at one point cuts you off from the next stage. Not knowing much about Paul but knowing a lot about Peter  doesn't doom your career as a theologian in the same way and failing Anglo-Saxon probably doesn't impact too greatly on your capacity to write intelligently about Jane Austen. But the STEM subjects are different and they are an important part of all our universities.

Now, of course there could be ways around this. We could for instance roll out four year degrees and insist that Cambridge provides a foundation year for ABB Natural Scientists. Who knows, maybe it would work. Other universities have such programmes, most Scottish universities have a 4 year undergraduate degree and Oxford's LMH has pioneered a small foundation year. The question is, is there the political will to fund this more generally? If we make the disadvantaged students pay for their extra year, that will undoubtedly kill it dead. 

It will also mean that Cambridge  would have to recruit a whole new bunch of staff to teach essentially remedial classes - assuming they don't make it part of the contractual duty of the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics or more likely some hapless doctoral student. It's not impossible, but it would certainly change the mission of the university and the mission of some of its staff. Opinions will differ as to whether that is a good thing.

So now we get onto outreach and access. If the problem is getting people to buy a lottery ticket then the next move is to blame Oxbridge for not doing enough to get the disadvantaged punters to join the queue.  Oxford currently spends more than £5 million per year on widening access and participation and that doesn't include the £9 million it spends on bursaries to support students from poorer backgrounds. Of course it is easy to say it should spend more. But how much more? Is £10 million enough? What about £50 million? When does not enough become enough? If it costs £300000 to get the marginal student through the door is that a good use of  endowment funds? I don't know the answer, but someone should be asking the question and unless you do the "the're not spending enough" rhetoric just isn't serious.

Well maybe it is not the amount of money, but how it is used that is the problem. They don't get out into the schools say the critics. Wrong, they do. What about bringing them to Oxford, yes they do that as well. Not enough effort to get high achieving black students, well, there is a dedicated programme for that too. 

If you look carefully  at what is done pretty much all of the obvious bases are covered. So  it is really for the critics to come up with concrete proposals rather than airy fairy generalities. The only one I've heard is from David Lammy who is quoted as saying that the problem is actually in the early years of secondary education and that the universities should be engaging with the 13 year olds. 

The first part of his diagnoses could be true but I fear the second part is about as sensible as the almost wilfully stupid idea that universities should run secondary schools.  Personally I have no confidence in the ability of the average Oxford don to get onto the wavelength of the average 13 year old. I can well recall my first experience of visiting a university - the University of Birmingham - in 1978. There was an open day for potential history undergraduates, a sort of primitive outreach activity - and I simply couldn't get over the accent of the rather tweedy middle aged professor that addressed us. In retrospect it was pretty standard RP delivered with a certain studied campness. I'd never heard anything like it in my life. Nobody I knew in Coventry spoke like that and I was too immature to ignore it and listen to what he actually said. To my mind it was all very funny. Maybe today's 13 year olds are more serious than I was when I was 16. But I doubt it.

So now we are getting close to the punch line. More or less everything that is proposed by the Oxbridge critics is just tinkering with details. What they want is a slightly more equal chance for some while maintaining the overall structure of inequality in the British higher education system. My proposal is much more radical and if implemented would remove the distorting effects of Oxbridge at one fell swoop and create a system  with a much large number of good universities with more or less parity of esteem where, as in the German system, it  wouldn't matter very much which one you studied at.

How is this to be achieved? Actually without much difficulty if there was the political will to do it. Firstly, entry would be determined by A level results not predicted grades. Special entrance exams, aptitude tests, interviews and so forth would be prohibited (medicine would become a post-graduate subject with a pre-med set of requirements). All university departments would be required to state the minimum A level tariff that  a diligent student would need to have a good chance, after three years, of graduating with at least a pass. Oversubscription would be dealt with strictly by lottery. 

A consequence of this system is that the distribution of student and probably faculty talent across universities would become much more equal than it currently is. And therefore employers would not so easily be able to use university names as a proxy for student quality. They'd then have to focus on what job candidates can actually do. It would also help if all degrees had at least one or two courses that were evaluated on a national basis - same curriculum, same exam - and marked by independent assessors,  and the results put in the public domain. But that would probably be asking for too much.

It shouldn't matter whether you go to Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Imperial, Warwick, Bristol, Lancaster  Manchester or two dozen other equally good places. The quality of the undergraduate education should be and probably in fact is just about the same. What differs is mainly the student composition. Change that and you remove the Oxbridge problem. In fact you shift the whole game away from competing on inputs into competing on outputs and that would automatically make the absurd TEF redundant.

Would this usher in a new age of equality and justice? No. But it would solve one specific problem. And it would perhaps lead us to become a bit more grown up about what we can reasonably expect universities to do. It seems to be a peculiarly British disease that we expect education and particularly university education to solve all social problems. It can't. But if we make higher education work better and more fairly maybe then we can turn to a much more pressing problem that hardly gets any attention in the media. How should we be educating the more than 50% of the birth cohort that does not enter higher education? Now that's something I'd like to see David Lammy get his teeth into.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

The legacy of slavery

I was very puzzled the other day to receive an email from my union addressed to "..all UCU members who have self-identified as black or minority ethnic on their membership form." Shurely shome mishtake as the Private Eye Bill Deedes parody would have it. 

But then I recalled my no doubt infuriating and perverse habit of  refusing to tick any box which would define my ethnicity as "white..." (neither an ethnicity in any meaningful sense nor an accurate description of my skin tone). Faced with that invitation I routinely choose "other" and write "Anglo-Scottish-Irish" which is an accurate description of the ethnie(s) I have some reason to identify with. 

It's easy to dismiss this as the childish word-game of a privileged middle-aged, middle-class, white dude. But hey, if identities are socially constructed why  do I have to accept the box that someone else wants to put me in? I want the same freedom to identity construct that everyone else has. And why shouldn't I have it?

So by a perverse unintended consequence of bureaucratic stipulation I have become, for administrative purposes, part of an ethnic minority and apparently entitled to attend the conference for black members in November.

The more I thought about this the more intrigued I became. The UCU email has a footnote that elucidates the use of the word 'black'. The first part states: "UCU uses the word 'black' in a political sense to refer to people who are descended, through one or both parents, from Africa, the Caribbean, Asia (the middle-East to China) and Latin America." 

Bingo! My case is cast iron. My 5th great-grandmother Rebecca Delap was born in 1730 in Antigua and you can't get much more Caribbean than that. I did wonder however whether it mattered that Rebecca's father, Francis Delap (1690-1766) whose remains, as far as I know  still rest in Antigua, owned several large sugar plantations, was a slave owner and quite possibly a slave trader. That might be something I should keep to myself should I attend.

Then I read further and all hope disappeared. The UCU footnote goes on to say that 'black' "...refers to those from a visible minority who have a shared experience of oppression. The word is used to foster a sense of solidarity and empowerment." Ah. I doubt a somewhat freckled Celtic skin, that tends towards red in strong sunlight, is, in context, really visible enough. And despite the undoubtedly oppressive experience of growing up in Coventry in the 1960s and 70s I'm not sure that this is quite the sort of oppression that the drafter of the UCU footnote has in mind.

So, that's something else I can cross off my calendar. Just as well really since I instinctively dislike most forms of identity politics. But, at least for administrative purposes I remain, until reclassified, a marginalized minority.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017


I'm not often so repelled by reading something that I want to write about it. Last weekend I was a bit ill and couldn't face reading anything too demanding so I searched my bookshelves for something diverting and what I came up with was Peter Levi's memoir The Flutes of Autumn

If I'd been fitter the very title, not to mention the art work,  might have given me cause to reconsider, but all my senses were a bit blunted. I have to confess I knew very little about Levi except that he had been a Jesuit priest, a poet and a prodigious scribbler. I think I was also aware  he had married Cyril Connolly's widow.

I can  now say that I have precisely two points of sympathetic connection with the man. Firstly he was brought up in suburban Ruislip and it turns out that when I lived there in the early '90s I passed his family home every Saturday  on my way to the supermarket. By that time Ruislip was even more ghastly than he describes it.  Secondly he was on friendly terms with Richard Hughes who I think is  the most underrated English novelists of the 20th century. In all other respects Levi seems like an alien to me. Worse, I couldn't help feel repulsed by the man. 

To me he embodiies the kind of effete, dilettante, Oxford preciousness that was still common in the 1980s. You know, the sort of person that falls into an orgasmic reverie about a decaying oak tree or an ancient ditch and has definite opinions about enigmatic fragments of ancient Greek texts. I think I last  witnessed an example in All Souls about 15 year ago, but then I don't get out  much and there still may be resistant pockets hanging around.

Monday, 9 October 2017

A family with the wrong members in control

That was how Orwell described the British state. Of course people who actually want to be in control are almost by definition the ones you should keep away from the levers of power. 

It seems to me symbolic of the mess we are in that we are about to spend  £3.5 billion (which in reality means at least twice that) on the renovation of the Palace of Westminster in order to preserve its current dysfunctional state including the preservation of a debating chamber that deliberately does not have enough seats for all of the elected representatives.

Of course those wrong family members will come up with some asinine bullshit about how this is actually a good thing, secure in the confidence that they can blag their way through and pull the wool over the eyes of the proles again.

Getting the turkeys to vote for Christmas is a tried and tested British political strategy. I should think that the rest of the EU will be glad to see the back of us.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Tom Petty RIP

So long
Thomas Earl Petty.

You were a
And a

Keith's mum bought
Your first album
In '77.

She was an
American girl;
Fooled again.
Didn't like it.

And now it's

E. J. Zimmerman 11 ¾