Oct 182010

I don’t normally comment much on areas that get close to my work, but I can’t keep quiet on this one …

First of all, I should declare a bias and an interest. Not only do I work for a University, but I believe that students should not pay for higher education. Indeed I believe that even under the system prevailing when I went to University in the 1980s, the maintenance grant was less than generous and imposed real hardship on students. Many of which were forced to take on part time work to make ends meet, when a University education is itself a full time occupation. In fact one of my lecturers informed us that whilst the lectures did not cover a full time week, we were expected to be working for a minimum of 40-hours a week.

There is always a lot of whinging from the ill-informed and ignorant about how students are sponging off the state. What such people don’t seem to realise is that students usually become graduates. Graduates in turn usually end up with high-paid jobs – higher paid that they would otherwise get. And people in higher-paid jobs end up paying more in tax over the years; in fact usually far more than the cost of the degree course. Sure there are exceptions; the most obvious one at the moment is that graduates do not always get a higher-paid job immediately in the middle of a recession.

But I’ll pretend that isn’t the case for the rest of this blog entry …

The Brown report (pointing at the executive summary) makes a number of recommendations which seem to try and accomplish several aims :-

  1. Increase funding for Universities; in particular for the top-level Universities which are complaining that they are suffering in comparison with top Universities in other countries.
  2. Whilst retaining the loans system, implement changes to encourage those fearful of getting into debt to come to University.
  3. Implement a market place within the higher education sector.

I am definitely not against the idea of increased funding for Universities, although I am doubtful it will work out well in practice given the government is trying to cut spending at the moment. It is also possible that the money available will remain roughly the same, or slightly less, but will be less “fairly” distributed. This may simply mean the best Universities get more money, and the worst get less … perhaps a lot less, but it could also mean that Universities concentrate on cheap and popular course, to the detriment of expensive but very important courses. For example, Law is one course that could be problematic as it is very expensive to setup to the extent that a University may not be able to justify the initial setup cost given it would require borrowing that may only be paid back very slowly.

And the thought that the worst Universities may get a lot less funding is worrying. Whilst it may seem perfectly reasonable to enforce normal market economics to the higher education sector, what happens to the students studying at a bankrupt University ? In normal circumstances, another University is likely to take over the courses (and the students) and cherry pick the resources in terms of staff and sell off the buildings. In a chaotic funding situation where every University is likely to be watching the bottom line closely ? Who knows ? But it could well be a bit of a train wreck with former students with no qualifications expected to pay back loans for courses they had no chance of finishing!

The idea of encouraging students to participate especially from unprivileged backgrounds is a good one, and the methods used to implement it seem on the face of it to be reasonable. What with assistance for children from less privileged backgrounds, to arrangements whereby loans are repaid only gradually with less well off graduates not necessarily paying anything back, it seems quite well thought out.

But there is still that “loan” word hanging over these students. Their parents will be thinking of trying to pay off the loan for them – and not that many can afford to especially when it comes to a second or third child within 5 years. And of course there is the interest – perfectly reasonable you would think, but what it amounts to is that children from poor families pay less, children from rich families pay less, and children from the middle-classes pay more. This is hardly fair.

What is really needed is to get rid of that “loan” word. Perhaps with the current government which is populated to an extent by the kind of people who rant, rage, and froth at the mouth at any mention of the word “tax”, we cannot suggest a graduate “tax”. But perhaps we could call it something else … a “graduate levy”? The key here is to pull the psychological trick of convincing people that this is not a loan so that people are not discouraged by starting their working life burdened by a huge amount of debt. It would also be seen as far more fair for all graduates to pay according to their ability to pay – no escape for the rich whose parents pay off the debt as soon as they graduate, and no less an escape for the “poor” graduate who starts with bursaries, and ends up in a job 5 years later earning more than the middle-class parents struggling to assist their own children get through University.

Lastly we have the idea of implementing a market place within the higher education sector. Well, I hate to break it to you, but there already is one. It is of course distorted by the government involvement, but I don’t see that changing with the introduction of different levels of tuition fees across the University sector – the government still has a cap on the upper limit fees can be, and all sorts of other ways of controlling the Universities. But yes there is a market of sorts in operation right now. Students choose which courses they want to enroll on, and which Universities they wish to enroll at.

Of course they “pay” at the moment with qualifications. A student with 5 A* grades may well get into Cambridge to study Natural Philosophy; another with 1 E grade may struggle to get into Cesspit-Under-Lye to study the ceiling. Students as a whole tend to go for two things – courses that look easy (although they often get nasty shocks such as History students finding out just how much hard statistics there can be), and courses that look like they may lead to a good pay packet at the end of the course – such as Medicine (a “pay packet” may not be simply of the green folding kind) or Law.

One of the common complaints we get about Universities is that they don’t churn out enough highly qualified engineers, scientists, or graduates with decent IT qualifications. There is a simple reason for that – the perception is that the courses for those degrees are hard (actually all degrees are hard!), and that the payback at the end of the course may not be all that good. Students vote with their feet. If society treats “geeks” like scum, and pays them less than a management degree graduate, it is likely that only the truly dedicated will opt for those courses. If society changed it’s attitude (and perhaps started paying “geeks” a good deal more than the management degree graduates!), then there might well be more IT graduates, electrical engineers, and the like coming out of Universities.

Of course the Brown report has to be seen in the light of a rumoured 79% cut in teaching grant to be announced in this week’s spending cuts.  That could either be a scare figure so we all breath a sigh of relief when we hear the real figure, or there’s going to be blood on the floor. It is possible that the massive cut could be phased in over a number of years as a transition from Universities being funded by a mixture of tuition fees and direct funding by the government, to being funded principally by tuition fees. However given the current need to cut government spending, this could well be rushed, which could well be very detrimental to the University sector.

Indeed one of the fears is that the cuts will be implemented immediately whilst the increase in tuition fees will take some time to implement leading to a chronic short fall in funds for the next year – quite possibly severe enough to see a number of Universities going to the wall. In all probability, if you see more than a tiny handful of Universities fail, a significant number of students will be thrown onto the streets without their degree … or a chance to finish it off.

After all what would happen to most businesses if 79% of their income suddenly vanished ?

It is interesting to see some of the reaction to this sort of news on the BBC … some people out there have some very old-fashioned views. Grouping together some of their views into headings :-

Trendy/Useless Degrees

There are quite a few pointing at degrees they feel are less than useful as being demeaning for all other degrees. Well who decides what is a good or a bad degree ? Perhaps you should let the market decide! What a strange thought.

If a degree is genuinely bad – it is too easy to obtain, and nobody will employ you as a result, not only will the University shut down the course (they themselves have their own reputation to think of), but the students will stop enrolling on such a course over the long term.

Besides, many of the degrees that people point at and laugh, are often the degrees needed for industries of the future – “Games Programming” – have you totted up just how much tax the companies writing computer games contribute ?

In any case, any degree is better than no degree. A degree is a piece of paper telling you that the graduate is capable of learning … and not just by copying notes off a blackboard (I hear they sometimes use whiteboards these days) supervised by a teacher who will lead you to the promised land of a GCSE, but by doing much of the work themselves. Sure there is a lecturer waving his or her arms around, but the student likely to get a better degree is going to be spending a lot of time making sure that lecturer does know what they are talking about and taking in alternate views. Give such a graduate a book and tell them to bugger off and find a better way of fidging widgets, is likely to do exactly that – whatever that might be!

And whilst I’m about it, let’s tackle “vocational degrees”. All degrees are vocational whether you recognise the fact or not – a Philosophy degree is kind of useful to a Philosopher.

Lastly, employers who insist on relevant degrees and then complain there are not enough graduates in that area need to take a good hard look at the possibility of employing graduates who do not have relevant degrees. They could be employed on a sort of training scheme with a review period at the end of a year, or something, but they could well prove to be valuable employees. It is worth pointing out that IBM used to go out of its way to employ highly qualified music graduates because they found that musicians made good computer programmers.

Graduates With Poor English or Numeracy

You know, some people seem to expect newly qualified students to be able to write as well as people who have been writing for decades. Interestingly some of those who complain do not necessarily have the highest skills in this area, although an Internet comments section is perhaps not the next best place to look for good English.

The trouble is people tend to assume that their own level of English has not improved over the years – when they graduated they were as erudite as they are now. They will usually get a nasty shock if they actually look at some of their earlier writing. I had the opportunity to do so a few months ago and I still wake up in a cold sweat at night. In fact if you manage to get hold of an older professional writer (and I’m thinking of writers of a particular genre of entertainment writing – no, I meant Science Fiction), and ply them with enough alcohol, you may very well find that they will admit that their earlier writing is something they would dearly love to “improve” a little bit. Certainly I’ve seen collections of short stories where an older and wiser writer has admitted that the earliest of their writing has a number of faults.

In short, don’t expect recent graduates to have the writing skills of Ernest Hemingway.

Foreign Students

Bizarrely enough there are actually some people who think that foreign students take away places or money from domestic students.

They usually pay the full whack in terms of fees – no helpful government putting a cap on the maximum fee that can be charged.

And they certainly don’t take away places for domestic students. It’s the government that places limits on the number of domestic students a University can take.

It is quite possible that there are courses out there that only exist for domestic students because of the foreign students that have enrolled on that same course.

We Only Need The Top 5% Anyway

There are those who say that there are far too many students and we can very easily save money by telling most of them to sod off and join the queue for unemployment benefit. Sorry, make that social security.

In a 19th century economy, it is certainly true that only a very small number of people need to be educated to a high degree. We can screw the rest of them with low-paid jobs and sack them when things get a little rough. Unfortunately, there are other countries that are better at cutting salaries than we are so trying to complete with economies that can employ people for $5 a day and still get a decent product at the end of it is pretty hopeless. If we want to maintain a decent standard of living we need to concentrate on areas where high-salaries are not a significant problem; such as knowledge based industries.

To do that we need a very educated work force, where nobody who is capable of being educated is left behind to maintain some archaic notion of who can and cannot receive education. Maintaining that archaic notion is likely to be far too expensive in the long term, as we need that educated work force to ensure that we have a pension in years to come.

In essence, we cannot afford not to pay through the nose for a decent education system.

Students Are Layabouts Getting Drunk On Our Money

Every night of the week in a University town you will find students out on the town getting drunk. Actually you will find young (and some not quite so young) people out on the town getting drunk. Not all of those drunk people are students, and even those that are, are not necessarily the same ones as were drinking last night.

And despite popular opinion, I can tell you from personal experience that the amount of drinking drops off dramatically after the first couple of weeks of term. I can tell this because the amount of noise at 4am is proportional to the amount of drinking, and I’m very familiar with the amount of noise at 4am. In fact some of the rowdiest drinkers around here are the middle-aged drunkards busy condemning those drunken students!

Nov 122008

So this morning I am sitting in front of the TV with my caffeine fix and some news channel on to break up the silence. On comes this item about how a school has shown a dramatic improvement after having introduced a new disciplinary regime. Something like an increase of 25% in pupils getting 5 or more GCSEs (cannot recall the exact numbers and it does not matter anyway).

But wait! The reporter goes on to say this increase does not include English or Maths and when those subjects are included, the increase is not quite as dramatic. So English and Maths are unimportant subjects are they ? Or perhaps the story does not come across as so interesting if the real increase is given.

So this reporter has stretched the truth (i.e. lied) by reporting a meaningless statistic that sounds good rather than a proper set of figures which would still sound good to those who do not have unrealistic expectations.

Why does the media do this ? Well obviously to make things sound better than the really are or more usually worse than they usually are. That is fair enough on an entertainment show, but surely news should present the facts and not try to stretch the truth.

Oct 022008

Today (perhaps because this week is widely the start of the term/semester for new students), the news has been reveling in stories of truely extreme initiation ceremonies for students wanting to join sporting clubs at Universities. I am not sure why they are concentrating on the sports … although I remember from my student days that the Rugy Club were terrifying drinkers, and that was just the women!

There has been many comments in favour and against these initiations. As some deaths have been caused because of these initiations, there is some need for concern.

I can hardly criticise students for consuming alcohol in large quantities … that would be more than a little hypocritical. But these students organising the initiations should reconsider using alchohol as part of the ceremony.

Firstly there is the danger that things could get out of control and become dangerous. Frankly drinking to the point where vomiting is inevitable is pretty dumb and can lead to dangerous situations. I personally would not like to take part in an initiation where humiliation was involved, but that is just me and as long as it is not taken to excess, why not?

Secondly by making alcohol and excessive drinking part of the initiation, they are excluding those who for a variety of reasons may not be able to drink or who may not wish to drink excessively. That does not mean they would not be able to be good members of a sporting club!

Why would someone not want to get involved in drinking ? Well a variety of reasons :-

  • Religion. Muslims are not supposed to drink alcohol, and other religions may also have similar restrictions.
  • Health. Some people are actually allergic to alcohol and can have pretty serious reactions to drinking. Some others may have conditions that drinking makes worse (like psoriasis), or may simply be particularly keen on a healthy lifestyle … we are to some extent talking about sports clubs!
  • Bad experiences. Not every drinking session ends pleasurably; anyone who has had a bad experience will at least think about “never again”, and why should they be excluded from certain clubs? Particularly as most will probably be back on the demon drink within weeks.

Lastly, doesn’t drinking make these initiations just a little too easy ? It is one thing to stand naked in a very cold sea when you are almost unconscious from stupendous amounts of alcohol, but think about how much more challenging it is to do it sober!

Sep 302008

The phrase “Religious Freedom” or ‘Freedom of Religion” often comes up, but I would like to see the phrase “Freedom From Religion” used a little more. This is going to sound a bit like an attack on religion itself, but it is not intended as such. Everyone is free to practice the religion of their choice … or none at all.

The key is the end of that last sentence – no religion at all. We’re all too often besieged with symbols of religion and people assume we want to hear about their favourite fictitious god. Certainly the UK is nowhere as bad as the USA where atheists can be subject to treatment that amounts to persecution even including physical and verbal abuse merely for voicing their lack of belief.

But that does not mean the UK is properly secular in public life. Schools can be a little too religious; I do not mind my taxes being used to pay for the education of children, but I do mind that it is used to pay for the religious indoctrination of children. Too many schools are “faith schools” and are at least partially funded by the taxpayer.

In many cases … particularly for primary schools where the most impressionable children are taught, there is little choice other to send children to such schools. The Church of England still “owns” (we won’t worry too much about the fine details of this ownership) 25% of all primary schools. Rather creepily similar to the Jesuit saying “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the man”.

Of course there is nothing deliberately sinister about the CoE schools these days. Long gone are the times when one could be beaten for expressing views even slightly atheistic, but there is still a distinct odour of the Christian religion about such places. One school even boasts of providing a “christian education”.

Moving onto Universities, and you will find the education considerably less influenced by religion as these places are supposed to be serious institutes of learning. But if you have a close look at who is employed at these places you will often find a chaplain or six. Now these chaplains probably are not going to ram their religion down your throat, and are to a certain extent simply a counselling service with a religious twist. The funny thing is that both of the Universities I checked also have independent counselling services.

So what we have here is a special religious counselling service that only certain people are qualified for employment with … just christians (or perhaps people who believe in other gods). Now religious students (and staff) could probably do with a little support from a University, but what is wrong with ordinary counsellors just pointing them at local churches, mosques and the like ? Again I’m not entirely sure why my taxes should go towards paying the salaries of people whose principal talent is talking to imaginary beings.

But far worse are the more in your face examples of religion. The church sign that says “The Wages of Sin is Death”, the kerbside evangelist who harranges you about being saved, the smug Christian who insists that all unbelievers will go straight to hell and suffer eternal damnation. At best this is merely irritating; at worst it consitutes a kind of verbal abuse.

Yet religion seems to have a privileged position in our society … it is considered wrong to criticise the beliefs of others. But why is not also considered wrong to criticise the unbelief of others ? I do not believe, do not want to be preached at, and certainly do not want to see my tax money spent on supporting religious belief in any way whatsoever.

Feb 282008

First of all, a little apology … I’m no expert Mathematician, was pretty dire at Physics, and I’m no great name in Computer Science. In fact the “physics” here could be any science that makes use of mathematics as a tool. Now for the really scary part … I’m going to be talking about equations.

At least some of the unpopularity of Physics has something to do with the equations that can be found in it. There is no getting around it, Physics and other sciences cannot be really called “science” without equations. But I do believe that physicists do make their equations a little too mysterious :-

e = m c ^ 2

(apologies for not using real symbols there)

Now that is one of the better known equations from physics, but were it one that was less well-known the general reaction would be “eh?”. Does the obscurity of the variables here help ?

When I was learning to write programs, I quickly came to the realisation that using descriptive variables was the start of writing understandable code and went some way to documenting what was going on. It is all very well writing a piece of code with less expressive variables but it makes understanding what you wrote some weeks (or months) ago much harder.

The use of obscure variables come from Maths where you start with equations like :-

x ^ 2 = 9

Now Maths (as I understand it) is basically a set of puzzles that have to be solved using the techniques of Maths; those techniques and the puzzles are divorced from any real problems. The use of deliberately inscrutable variables is by design.

Which way should sciences that use equations go ? The way that Maths goes with inscrutable variable names, or the way of software engineering with descriptive variables ? Historically sciences have gone down the route in common with Maths; understandably enough, but why not try descriptive names. Isn’t an equation like :-

Energy = Mass * Speed of Light ^ 2

… far more understandable, and possibly just a little bit less scary to those put off by equations ? If changing to descriptive variables brings a few more young people into the study of science, is that a good reason for using them. I think so.

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