Thursday, 26 February 2015

Allowing university fees to rise will not solve higher ed's most pressing problems

English university tuition fees are in a mess. We here at 'Public Policy and the Past' always said that we were heading for a kind of headbangingly bonkers worst-of-all-possible worlds, of course. Higher fees for students. Even more outlays for the taxpayer. Massive debt burdens that are hugely, hugely underrated in the headline £27,000 figure for three years' tuition. And yes, we got all that right - tick, tick and tick again.

Now it hasn't all been bad. University numbers have not fallen - although that was never the main fear of those who actually understood (and understand) these reforms. The number of students coming from the poorest postcodes has risen, not fallen, though of course it's hard to winnow out what would have happened if we'd left fees at £3,000. The fact is that we are living through a social revolution in which more and more people aspire to go to university, and have the qualifications to do so. And so the numbers keep going up - at least as a share of the younger age group.

But the changeover to high fees has been chaotic - and completely unsustainable. The main reasons why the coalition government started to charge fees were twofold. One, they shifted the spending out of 'debits' and into 'credits', because technically Her Majesty's Government was building up a great big pile of money that it'll be owed in the future. Now about half of that the taxpayer will never, ever see again. As we also said at the time. But let's place that to one side today, and focus on the second reason why the ideologues in Westminster and Whitehall wanted to charge more for university tuition: the fact that they wanted to encourage a market-led system in which 'consumer choice' was king.

That's led to some of the worst debacles in the system, as we now see in a damning Parliamentary Accounts Committee report covering the millions that were wasted on private providers that were very poor marginal players at best, and at worst downright fraudulent. Nearly £700m was sprayed around in such a fashion; nearly £4m was paid out to ineligible students who shouldn't have got the money supporting their fees in the first place. Other examples of waste and disorganisation abound. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is in charge of the universities budget, 'failed to heed' warnings. It had inadequate structures in place to check courses and new providers. It wasn't sure what was going on at the grassroots. Basically, it failed - in much the same way as trying to govern Free Schools and Academies from the centre, from inside the Department for Education, is beginning to disintegrate as well. 

Because it's impossible. There's not the time, the money, the inclination or the skill to understand and then regulate a sector as big and important as this one from inside BIS.

There's a lesson here, and it's an important one at a time when it's rumoured that the Government is thinking of allowing universities to charge more than £9,000, as long as it's universities themselves (and not central government and the taxpayer) raising the loans. The lesson is that there's not enough intellectual and administrative capacity in our HE system - let alone in Whitehall - to deal with those innovations without long lead times and a lot (and we mean a lot) of care and attention to detail. Let the whole thing go cloudy and hang loose for a few years, and you might reap exactly what you've sown in this cautionary tale of private providers: chaos and confusion.

Universities are not really designed to take on this level of risk. They are finding it hard enough balancing all the different elements that government keeps piling on them, as if they're some sort of Buckaroo-style dexterity game from the 1980s. Even designing contracts with student-consumers that keep up with the law is hard enough. Could they really design, draw up and manage huge 30-year bonds with banks and asset managers? Mortgage their buildings, or even sell them on and lease them back? Engage in their own Private Finance Initiatives? Logic, and our experience with £9,000 fees, says not.

Labour is apparently steeling itself to announce lower fees should it win power in May, with a new limit of £6,000. Now this isn't exactly a university utopia either, and no doubt the Treasury will make sure that not all of the funding shortfall is plugged with state monies. But that policy might involve a little less gambling, a little less blind faith, and a lot less risk than letting the whole thing rip.

Who wants to be the Minister and the Secretary of State when the first big Russell Group redbrick goes 'bang' in a massive debt crisis? No-one, that's who.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Memo to finance ministers: stop kicking Greece while she's down

Imagine your neighbour's house was burning down. What would you do? Take them in and provide shelter from the elements, maybe? Call the fire brigade? Get stuck in with the buckets of water and the hoses? Such an attitude would seem natural, normal, well-adjusted: it would pass without comment.

Not if you're France and Germany, it wouldn't. Because they've just decided to turn an economic flamethrower on their Greek friends. First the European Central Bank let it to be know that they'd cut the Greek government adrift if negotiations didn't work out, while making sure that they offered only just enough to keep them open. Then the frighteners were really put on the Greeks. Sign here, the Germans and French said, or your banks will be insolvent and you'll be forced out of the Euro. Okay, they didn't put it quite like that, but that's what they meant.

One despairs. Europe's paymasters are now so far down their road of mangled economic pathology that they don't even know where the light of reason once was, if they ever saw it in the first place.

Having elected a radical government that rejected the last few years' austerity, Greeks' reward was to have their banks rabbit-punched by the ECB and their politicians berated for mistakes their predecessors had made. So the negotiations are over for now, and we've got just about nowhere. All the Greeks got was four months' more credit, and a very vague promise to look again at some of the extent of her budget surplus - exactly the sort of fudge Athens had railed against in the first place. Democracy? Pah.

Regular readers will know that Public Policy and the Past has always said that the best thing for Greece would be to leave the Euro, bring back its own currency, devalue, default and then come back stronger in a few years' time.

But Greeks don't want to do that. They want to keep the Euro - to which they are perfectly entitled, since they are citizens of the European Union and have every right to take all the benefits of lower interest rates, ease of use and 'security' that gives them. And if that's what they want, they need support. What will all those high-minded words in all those union treaties be worth if they don't get it? Chip wrapper, that's what.

The worst thing about all this is how unnecessary it all is. Give a few proper economists an hour and they'd wrap it all up. Longer terms for Greek debt would make it more than payable. Here's something you probably didn't know: Greece is running a big budget surplus just to pay the interest on its debt. Give them a lot longer to pay, and a lot of the problems disappear. The Greeks can reduce their foreign outlays - which mainly go to the big German and French banks who got them into this in the first place anyway. Government spending can decline less steeply. Growth will be higher. Structural changes to boost productivity will be more likely.

No doubt Northern European Finance Ministers think they're pretty clever, firing off their shock and awe in all directions. They think that they've made the Greeks take the bulk of the concessions. That Syriza has been humiliated, and will crawl back into its nice non-partisan box and play nicely. That the Greeks will just accept a few tweaks to the 'bailout' terms. That their electorates - particularly German voters - will give them the thumbs up for 'punishing' supplicant countries who can't pay their way.

They are seriously deluded if they do think that. In fact, what's they're doing is undermining the European ideal, making clear that the budgetary union that must follow a currency union is as far away as ever. Think of the language used. Who 'won'. Who 'lost'. Who is 'on top', and who has been 'beaten'. No such language would be possible in terms of the UK's own currency union, bolting Cornwall together with Northern Ireland, and Suffolk together with the Scottish Highlands. The currency and financial shock of falling oil prices is being absorbed right now by the transfers within that system - transfers that the struggling Greek economy is not allowed, even though all of her problems are down to her being in the Euro in the first place.

The European authorities have made sure that the new Greek government has a seriously hard sell on its hands. That it might struggle, then fall, paving the way for more radical elements - perhaps this time from the hard Right - to take over. That Germany is now seen as the Greeks' jailer, rather than their ally. And all so the Spanish, the Irish and the Portuguese don't get any funny ideas about debt restructuring and forgiveness.

And in that lies the problem of the European elites. They think of themselves as 'Europeans', but they're not willing to take the steps to give that identity political weight and force. They are too clever by half.

Well, here's the payoff: they won't feel so tricksy if they bring down their own currency, and Greek democracy along with it.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Feelings, not ideas, are the key to election victory

Emotions, those troublesome guides to our deepest selves. They come bubbling up so quickly, and can fade away just as rapidly, that they sometimes seem ephemeral. But they're key to how we actually see the world - in the jargon, they constitute the software of our heuristic biases, the rules-of-thumb that we apply to choice and life that we don't even notice, most of the time.

And they're critical to elections like the one we find ourselves in now.

Most voters have very little information to go on. The science of economics and the dynamics of organised social policy are specialised, complicated, contradictory things. Even experts find them difficult to understand - and even harder to use as guides to actual decisions. There's often little point tooling ourselves up in the way that the lay population can, because the level of knowledge that's easy to harvest can often do little more than give voters an entry key to a totally incomprehensible I-say-you-say world of mazes. The upshot? About half of voters don't even know that a General Election is due in just 78 days.

So they go on emotion instead. Which party do you identify with? Which leader do you find most convincing, trustworthy, capable-looking? Who best speaks for you? Those used to be easier questions, based on social class, but now they're much more complicated - rooted in a sense of self, region, shared identity, language, race, city, education, religion, even type of house, car and hobby. That means that many voters might change their minds, very rapidly, as the parties' images intersect with those other unstable markers of self and of identity.

Voters depend on symbolic representation and interpretation - clusters of tropes, ideas, fears and hopes that proceed by very obvious and appealing symbols. That's why the Conservatives reacted with concern and then fury when it looked last week as if they would be labelled 'the tax dodger's party' - because they knew that would solidify the idea, central to the public's perception of them, that they would only ever stand up for the rich. That's why the issue holds great dangers for Labour, too, since when and if their MPs' affairs don't stand scrutiny (whose would, under such a harsh arclight?) they'll look like a band of metropolitan 'Westminster' hypocrites. United Kingdom Independence Party voters (and potential voters) repeat established norms about 'bad' immigration in contradistinction to the 'good' immigration of the law-abiding and the hard-working, while they repeat their worries about radical Islam to each other over and over again. Voters like the idea of 'Labour' (or at least dislike it less than the 'Conservative' brand), but can't stand the image and reality of Labour's leader, Ed Miliband.

All symbols. All groups of emotional responses whirling around each other. And all critical to the election.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Is cancer really just due to bad luck?

Consider this press release about a potentially fatal disease. It was put out last month by one of the world's top universities - Johns Hopkins in the US - and it basically says that two thirds of cancer risk is down to random mutations in your genes. There's nothing you can do about it. That's just life - analogous to a car journey or a train trip. There might be an accident. That's unfortunate, but you might as well worry about getting hit by lightning.

Except that the whole basis of the story was faulty. That wasn't the fault of the researchers, but of the university press office that put out the fatal phrase 'two thirds of cancer just bad luck'. Er, no. That's not supported by other science, actually, and Cancer Research UK estimates that 40% of cancers could be prevented by changing our lifestyles.

Why the difference in numbers? Well, they're down to the fact that the Johns Hopkins scientists were measuring the amount of variations in cell division and their relationship with numbers of cancers - the more cells split up, the more risk of cancer (above). So far, so good. But that didn't have a baseline. It didn't start from the actual level of cancer risks, to you or anyone else (or in the population as a whole). It dealt only with the variance - the amount of change explained by the cells' behaviour. So the amount these ecological experiments tell you about the actual level of the cancer risk? Not that much. Not only that, but the confidence intervals of the research (the level at which the researchers can be 95% certain that their result is 'correct'), was actually 39% to 81%. That's a massive range which allows us to speculate a lot, even about the narrow question of cell division and the specific links between changes in that process and the potential prevalence of cancers. And the analysis gives a lot more weight to relatively rare types of cancer (including relatively unusual inherited forms) than it does to the ones you should actually worry about dying from.

So the answer to the question with which we opened is just: no, we can't say that most cancers are just due to bad luck. This research does not say that two thirds of actual cases, and certainly not each individual's risk of cancer, add up, sixty-six times out of a hundred, to pure chance. Most of it probably does happen via processes that look like chance to us, but in interaction with the environment. It's not, as any scientist will tell you, an 'either/ or' question. Go back to that driving analogy. Yes, there's always a risk of an accident. But if you want to increase that risk, you can drive erratically, drunk, badly or without due care and attention. That'll change the parameters. If you want our advice, you should eat lots of fruit and vegetables (and wholemeal products), get out on brisk walks, limit your alcohol intake, make sure you don't smoke, and watch your weight. In fact, exactly what doctors and statisticians have been telling you for years.

The whole imbroglio is deeply worrying. But we can't just blame journalists - or even university press officers, who are usually much more up to the mark. They only write stuff like this because they think that's what the audience wants - and what they must pander to in order to get a hearing. There's a lot of poorly-orientated numerical thinking out there, from the clangers put out by anti-vaccination activists to most people's faulty knowledge of economics.

As we've said again and again on this blog, statistics are constructed - they happen in the relationships between the makers and the users (or interpreters). Like class, which happens as the machinery of voice and language and prejudice moves - as a verb, rather than a noun, as it were - so statistics are produced, understood (or misunderstood), read, re-read, handed on, garbled or sharpened. They happen in the space and the relationship between the citizen and the scientists or social scientists involved. So we're part of it all. We're implicated in the successes and the mess-ups. We each have a responsibility to tool ourselves up in the maze of quantitative choice and the mathematical fog in which we find ourselves.

Don't be put off by bad press releases, media units' indiscriminate use of data, dodgy numbers and poor reporting. It's rampant - as this unfortunate example demonstrates. Be confident. Equip yourself with the statistical, numerate, quantitative skills of scale and scope that will allow you to fight back - an ability to interpret data that is becoming more and more important in our statistical age.

Healthy scepticism is a very important part of any functioning democracy. But we should all be able to extend it to those questioning the intellectual or scientific status quo, just as we direct it at our governors and leaders.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Where is the new thinking on the Left?

In case you hadn't noticed, Pope Francis (above) has been shaking up the Catholic Church. He's been recommending, and to some extent living, the life of the poor. He's been ruthlessly clearing out opponents of a (slightly) more liberal approach to sexuality and gender. He's been talking about a larger role for women in the church. He's been toughing it out with recalcitrant Vatican bureaucrats. Just in case anyone thought he was some sort of leftist revolutionary, he's been defending religious belief against the more secular and absolute views of what free speech is or might mean.

There's a lot of actual ideology in there, by the way. Have a read of this absolute zinger of a stomach punch to free marketeers' views, released as an Apostolic Exhortation, not fired off as one of Francis' famous back-of-the-'plane ad libs. It bears study in full:

Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and na├»ve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase. In the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.

Say what you really mean, eh? There are very few places where you'll get such a succinct, and devastating, critique of the way we consume news, think about others, conceptualise the developing world, believe in outdated economic platitudes, and the like - all in just seven sentences. And there's more where that came from. Lots more.

Now, don't worry. This isn't a paean to Catholic social teaching (though there's a lot in there to get your teeth into, should you wish). It's a piece to highlight the way in which quite - and in some cases, very - conservative people are making all the running in how we think about late (or post-) capitalism. Even Prince Charles has been getting in on the act, talking about how capitalism must serve people and protect the planet, rather than just pumping out more and more stuff that we don't want.

But European social democrats are struggling to respond. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have seized the moment, pointing the finger of blame for our economic woes fairly and squarely where it belongs - in the unacceptable and lopsided concentration of power in the hands of banks and political austerians. But beyond that, British Labour and the French Socialists speak only of a milder form of retrenchment, with perhaps some weak-minded and watery evocations of 'predator' rather than 'producer' capitalism thrown in to taste.

Europeans deserve better than for the most resonant spiritual, moral and humanistic critiques of the economic straitjacket in which we've imprisoned ourselves to come from conservatives - welcome as those interventions are. They need a lead from the Left, too. Will they get it? 

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Honourable defeat might be the best thing for Labour

So we're in a tight UK General Election campaign now, and one which Labour still hopes to win. The odds are rather against that they will, but they still might - to the party's long-term detriment.

Imagine it. Labour with a very slender working majority, dependent on the Liberal Democrats as coalition partners - and on Plaid Cymru, Northern Ireland's SDLP and especially the Scottish Nationalists for vote-by-vote support. A government on a life support machine, just like Labour was in 1976-79 - the last time its social democratic views seemed to be fading out of British public life for good.

That might represent a perfect storm - if you want to see Labour eviscerated for good. Like Pasok in Greece, or Germany's Social Democrats (to a lesser extent), in those circumstances Labour might just be reduced to the electoral fringe and to irrelevancy.

That's partly due to Labour's own agenda for power. Now there is a big difference between Labour's relatively mild plans for spending reductions and the Conservative ones (not that the latter are at all realistic, but we've covered that before). A difference that will never, ever see the light of day if Labour are in a position to take over No. 10 in just a few short weeks. And which will leave Labour with the dread tag of 'austerity' hung around its neck by parties that have very few alternatives, but a lot of good slogans.

That would be a perfect recipe for the United Kingdom Independence Party to hollow out Labour's dominance of the North of England, just as the Scottish National Party seem to have done such a good job of political cleansing in Scotland. The SNP seem poised to make fundamental breakthroughs in May that might end Labour's dominance of the Scottish electoral landscape for good - and set us on the road to another independence referendum. That's partly because Labour took Scotland for granted for so long, and they've done exactly the same with their big majorities in England's old industrial heartlands.

What the SNP's extraordinary and unprecedented electoral advance tells us is this: there's no such thing as a safe seat any more. We saw that in the Heywood and Middleton by-election last autumn, when UKIP nearly obliterated a big Labour majority.

Labour has a lot of seats that are pretty vulnerable to a UKIP surge on anything like the same lines as that being enjoyed by the SNP right now. Hull East. Easington. Great Grimsby. Hartlepool - anywhere where there are large conglomerations of older men without any qualifications. The left behinds. The angry. The frustrated. The disenfranchised. Voters with not much to lose - and who might think that Labour haven't done that much for them for decades. Voters who have much in common with Scots in Greater Glasgow whose patience might just finally have snapped with what they see as a 'Westminster elite' who've never listened to them very much anyway.

Up until now, UKIP have been taking most of their votes from those who plumped for the Conservatives in 2010. But that hides the real dynamics, for many of those come from Britons who opted for Labour in 2005, and even more of them from those who thought of themselves as 'Labour' in the 1990s. As soon as Labour was back in power, UKIP would move its heavy artillery from the South of England - and away from Conservative targets - and just trundle it all Northwards.

So let's go back to the imaginative picture with which we began. Labour will be imposing limited, but still quite painful, austerity. Its Scottish wing will just have been absolutely hammered, partly because Labour has become seen as a party of orthodox economics imposed from outside Scotland. Scots will just have voted (again) against such ideas. But they will still have got Labour telling them what's best for them. Expect Scottish Labour to recover from there? Well, no.

And there'll be 'supported', if that's the right word, from the Opposition benches by (say) 30 or 40 SNP MPs who have absolutely no stake whatsoever in seeing them succeed. Quite the opposite, in fact, for if relatively progressive and humane government can be delivered within the UK, why leave it? Ed Miliband as Prime Minister (above) would expect to be brought down by those SNP MPs just as soon as they can - unless it's in their interests to let him bleed support and authority within a fixed term Parliament from which it will be difficult to escape.

And all the while Labour will be hemorrhaging support to UKIP in the North of England. The party will be trapped between its own voters, two parties that loathe it with a passion, and the logic of power. They won't even possess the freedom of action that an overall majority (and a mandate) can provide. It might become a long, cold, dark old nightmare.

For all these reasons, anyone who wishes Labour well might think to themselves: a good election to lose, this one.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The dangers of a more political monarch

Signals have recently been emerging from Prince Charles' inner circle that he wishes to be a more opinionated, interventionist, thoughtful monarch. He wants to go on 'speaking out', 'speaking his mind', and generally making clear where he stands on the issues close to his heart. If that's right, and that really is the heir's intention when he does take up the throne, it's a worrying sign indeed.

Now this is not at all about his ideas. Organic food? Sustainable farming? The fight against global warming? The need to feel connected to the earth, to a place, to the land? Well, take it or leave it, the Prince of Wales (above) was ruminating about many of these themes before many of his future subjects had really engaged with 'green' issues at all. We like those Duchy Original biscuits, by the way. And talking to plants? There are worse things you can do with your spare time.

Now Charles Windsor has something of his great-uncle in his soul. He wants to make a difference. He wants to be useful. He cares. He wants to move 'forward'. Like Edward VIII's promise to the South Wales miners - that 'something will be done' about unemployment and poverty (though little was) - he thinks that he can make a big and a hearty contribution. And you know what? In certain spheres and at certain times, he probably can. You'd be hard pressed to find a more admirable charity than the Prince's Trust, working with youngsters from across the United Kingdom to help them find a better life for themselves.

But that wish to lead, and to be loved, is a perilous one in a King rather than a Prince - as Edward VIII found to his cost. The very point of the modern monarchy - without which it would be useless indeed to modern Britain - is its uselessness. It's an ornament, not an orb.

The idea of a more political monarchy is a deeply dangerous one for rather more prosaic reasons as well. Popularity, loyalty, influence - they flow from being rather than saying, and showing rather than telling. From this angle, it's important to stress that Prince Charles seems to feel rather slighted by life. He is doomed to succeed a vastly skilful and popular monarch who feels that she learned the art of dutiful service at the shoulder of her father, and has gone on applying those rules - keeping on keeping on - for so many decades that most Britons can remember nothing else. Perhaps he wants to strike out in a new way, and to make a mark for himself. No-one could blame him.

But consider the Queen's recent sally into the question of Scottish independence, and what it tells us about the successful use of power. We know what she really thinks. She looked askance at the title 'Queen of Scots' that was talked of by some Nationalists, thinking her own Scottishness (via her mother, not her throne) beyond question without any change of title. She made sure that she urged Scots to 'think very carefully' about the vote - a sophisticated, deniable way of communicating her true views that showed she had learned from an ill-advised attempt to address the question directly at the time of her Silver Jubilee. The signal was unmistakable - but could easily have been forgotten, adapted, revised. It was the mark of a monarch who is political in a truer sense than merely the controversial or opinionated - who judges which part of which game can be played to win. Wouldn't you rather be Charles II, nuanced, subtle, hard to pin down, than his less successful but perhaps more principled brother, James II?

So as the Prince pens his torrent of 'black spider' memoranda to Ministers, as his household tries to block their publication, as he prepares one day to be King, everyone should have a thought: if he really does want to go on 'speaking out', he is taking us into rough waters. In an era when we are very likely to have more Hung Parliaments, when the Union is likely to come into question again and again, when the tradeoffs between humans and nature become more acute, Queen Elizabeth II's skills are going to look very useful indeed.

We are told in Charles' most recent biography that his household is riven with tension and faction. Perhaps that's a bit overblown. But unless he is very careful indeed, he may end up dividing the country without meaning to.