Archive for Wales

Polls Apart

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on May 9, 2017 by telescoper

Time for some random thoughts about political opinion polls, the light of Sunday’s French Presidential Election result.

We all know that Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen in the second round ballot: he won 66.1% of the votes cast to Le Pen’s 33.9%. That doesn’t count the very large number of spoilt ballots or abstentions (25.8% in total). The turnout was down on previous elections, but at 74.2% it’s still a lot higher than we can expect in the UK at the forthcoming General Election.

The French opinion polls were very accurate in predicting the first round results, getting the percentage results for the four top candidates within a percentage or two which is as good as it gets for typical survey sizes.

Nate Silver Harry Enten has written a post on Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site claiming that the French opinion polls for the second round “runoff” were inaccurate. He bases this on the observation that the “average poll” in between the two rounds of voting gave Macron a lead of about 22% (61%-39%). That’s true, but it assumes that opinions did not shift in the latter stages of the campaign. In particular it ignores Marine Le Pen’s terrible performance in the one-on-one TV debate against Macron on 4th May. Polls conducted after that show (especially a big one with a sample of 5331 by IPSOS) gave a figure more like 63-37, i.e. a 26 point lead.

In any case it can be a bit misleading to focus on the difference between the two vote shares. In a two-horse race, if you’re off by +3 for one candidate you will be off by -3 for the other. In other words, underestimating Macron’s vote automatically means over-estimating Le Pen’s. A ‘normal’ sampling error looks twice as bad if you frame it in terms of differences like this.  The last polls giving Macron at 63% are only off by 3%, which is a normal sampling error…

The polls were off by more than they have been in previous years (where they have typically predicted the spread within 4%. There’s also the question of how the big gap between the two candidates may have influenced voter behaviour,  increasing the number of no-shows.

So I don’t think the French opinion polls did as badly as all that. What still worries me, though, is the different polls consistently gave results that agreed with the others to within 1% or so, when there really should be sampling fluctuations. Fishy.

By way of a contrast, consider a couple of recent opinion polls conducted by YouGov in Wales. The first, conducted in April, gave the following breakdown of likely votes:

Poll

The apparent ten-point lead for the Conservatives over Labour (which is traditionally dominant in Wales) created a lot of noise in the media as it showed the Tories up 12% on the previous such poll taken in January (and Labour down 3%); much of the Conservative increase was due to a collapse in the UKIP share. Here’s the long-term picture from YouGov:

Wales-01

As an aside I’ll mention that ‘barometer’ surveys like this are sometimes influenced by changes in weightings and other methodological factors that can artificially produce different outcomes. I don’t know if anything changed in this regard between January 2017 and May 2017 that might have contributed to the large swing to the Tories, so let’s just assume that it’s “real”.

This “sensational” result gave various  pundits (e.g. Cardiff’s own Roger Scully) the opportunity to construct various narratives about the various implications for the forthcoming General Election.

Note, however, the sample sample size (1029), which implies an uncertainty of ±3% or so in the result. It came as no surprise to me, then, to see that the next poll by YouGov was a bit different: Conservatives on 41% (+1), but Labour on 35% (+5). That’s still grim for Labour, of course, but not quite as grim as being 10 points behind.

So what happened in the two weeks between these two polls? Well, one thing is that many places had local elections which resulted in lots of campaigning. In my ward, at least, that made a big difference: Labour increased its share of the vote compared to the 2012 elections (on a 45% turnout, which is high for local elections). Maybe then it’s true that Labour has been “fighting back” since the end of April.

Alternatively, and to my mind more probably, what we’re seeing is just the consequence of very large sampling errors. I think it’s likely that the Conservatives are in the lead, but by an extremely uncertain margin.

But why didn’t we see fluctuations of this magnitude in the French opinion polls of similar size?

Answers on a postcard, or through the comments box, please.

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The Welsh University Funding Debacle Continues…

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , on February 24, 2015 by telescoper

Although I no longer work in Wales, I still try to keep up with developments in the Welsh Higher Education sector as they might affect friends and former colleagues who do. I noticed yet another news item on the BBC a week or so ago as a kind of update to another one published a few years ago about the effect of the Welsh Government’s policy of giving Welsh students bursaries to study at English universities. The gist of the argument is that:

For every Welsh student that goes to university across the border the fee subsidy costs the Welsh government around £4,500.

It means this year’s 7,370 first-year students from Wales who study in other parts of the UK could take more than £33m with them. Including last year’s students, the total figure is over £50m.

According to the latest news story on this, the initial estimate of £50M estimate grew first to £77M and is now put at a figure closer to £90M.

I did in fact make exactly the same point about five years ago on this blog, when former Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from then (then) impending tuition fee rises by a new system of grants. In effect the Welsh Assembly Government would pick up the tab for Welsh students; they would still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG would pay the extra £6K. I wrote in May 2010:

This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for Welsh universities but wherever they choose to study. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (at least 16,000 × £3000 = £48 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. It’s a very strange thing to do when the WAG is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students will be paid for by top-slicing the teaching grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So further funding cuts for universities in Wales are going to be imposed precisely in order to subsidise English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If the new measures go ahead I can see fewer English students coming to Wales, and more Welsh students going to England. This will have deeply damaging consequences for the Welsh Higher Education system.

It’s very surprising that the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, who form part of the governing coalition in the Welsh Assembly, have gone along with this strange move. It’s good for Welsh students, but not good for Welsh universities. I would have thought that the best plan for Welsh students would be to keep up the bursaries but apply them only for study in Wales. That way both students and institutions will benefit and the Welsh Assembly’s budget will actually be spent in Wales, which is surely what is supposed to happen…

Well, the changes did go ahead, and now the consequences are becoming clearer. The Chief Executive of Welsh university funding agency HEFCW, Dr David Blaney, is quoted as saying

“…in England, English students have to get a loan, so the top universities there have £9,000 coming from each student and also funding from the funding council.

In Wales, a lot of the funding council funding is now spent on the tuition fee grant and that means there’s less money available to invest in the Welsh sector than is the case in England,” he told BBC Wales in an exclusive interview.”

This also mirrors a concern I’ve also discussed in a blog post, which is that the Welsh Government policy might actually increase the number of Welsh students deciding to study in England, while also decreasing the number of other students deciding to study in Wales. Why would this happen? Well, it’s because, at least in STEM subjects, the tuition fee paid in England attracts additional central funding from HEFCE. This additional resource is nowhere near as much as it should be, but is still better than in Wales. Indeed it was precisely by cutting the central teaching grant that the Welsh Government was able to fund its bursaries in the first place. So why should an English student decide to forego additional government support by choosing to study in Wales, and why should a Welsh student decide to do likewise by not going to England?

I really hope the Welsh Government decides to change its policy, though whether an imminent General Election makes that more or less likely is hard to say.

Scotland Should Decide…

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2014 by telescoper

There being less than two weeks to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, a subject on which I have so far refrained from commenting, I thought I would write something on it from the point of view of an English academic. I was finally persuaded to take the plunge because of incoming traffic to this blog from  pro-independence pieces here and here and a piece in Nature News on similar matters.

I’ll say at the outset that this is an issue for the Scots themselves to decide. I’m a believer in democracy and think that the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed through a referendum should be respected. I’m not qualified to express an opinion on the wider financial and political implications so I’ll just comment on the implications for science research, which is directly relevant to at least some of the readers of this blog. What would happen to UK research if Scotland were to vote yes?

Before going on I’ll just point out that the latest opinion poll by Yougov puts the “Yes” (i.e. pro-independence) vote ahead of “No” at 51%-49%. As the sample size for this survey was only just over a thousand, it has a margin of error of ±3%. On that basis I’d call the race neck-and-neck to within the resolution of the survey statistics. It does annoy me that pollsters never bother to state their margin of error in press released. Nevertheless, the current picture is a lot closer than it looked just a month ago, which is interesting in itself, as it is not clear to me as an outsider why it has changed so dramatically and so quickly.

Anyway, according to a Guardian piece not long ago.

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to the statement by Willetts, who is no longer the Minister in charge) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for science in the rest of what is now the United Kingdom, but that depends on how much the Westminster government sets the science budget.

This all depends on how research funding would be redistributed if and when Scotland secedes from the Union, which could be done in various ways. The simplest would be for Scotland to withdraw from RCUK entirely. Because of the greater effectiveness of Scottish universities at winning funding compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland would have to spend more per capita to maintain its current level of resource, which is why many Scottish academics will be voting “no”. On the other hand, it has been suggested (by the “yes” campaign) that Scotland could buy back from its own revenue into RCUK at the current effective per capita rate  and thus maintain its present infrastructure and research expenditure at no extra cost. This, to me, sounds like wanting to have your cake and eat it,  and it’s by no means obvious that Westminster could or should agree to such a deal. All the soundings I have taken suggest that an independent Scotland should expect no such generosity, and will get actually zilch from the RCUK.

If full separation is the way head, science in Scotland would be heading into uncharted waters. Among the questions that would need to be answered are:

  •  what will happen to RCUK funded facilities and staff currently situated in Scotland, such as those at the UKATC?
  •  would Scottish researchers lose access to facilities located in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?
  •  would Scotland have to pay its own subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO?

These are complicated issues to resolve and there’s no question that a lengthy process of negotiation would be needed to resolved them. In the meantime, why should RCUK risk investing further funds in programmes and facilities that may end up outside the UK (or what remains of it)? This is a recipe for planning blight on an enormous scale.

And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence? If not, what would happen to EU funded research?

I’m not saying these things will necessarily work out badly in the long run for Scotland, but they are certainly questions I’d want to have answered before I were convinced to vote “yes”. I don’t have a vote so my opinion shouldn’t count for very much, but I wonder if there are any readers of this blog from across the Border who feel like expressing an opinion?

 

The Welsh University Funding Debacle

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , on September 4, 2013 by telescoper

Although I no longer work in Wales, I still try to keep up with developments in the Welsh Higher Education sector as they might affect friends and former colleagues who do. That’s why my eye was drawn this morning to a news item on the BBC website about the effect of the Welsh Government’s policy of giving Welsh students bursaries to study at English universities. The gist of the argument is that:

For every Welsh student that goes to university across the border it costs the Welsh government around £4,500.

It means this year’s 7,370 first-year students from Wales who study in other parts of the UK could take more than £33m with them. Including last year’s students, the total figure is over £50m.

I did in fact make exactly the same point over three years ago on this blog, when former Welsh Education Minister Leighton Andrews announced that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from then (then) impending tuition fee rises by a new system of grants. In effect the Welsh Assembly Government would pick up the tab for Welsh students; they would still have to pay the existing fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG would pay the extra £6K. I wrote in May 2010:

This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for Welsh universities but wherever they choose to study. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (at least 16,000 × £3000 = £48 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. It’s a very strange thing to do when the WAG is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students will be paid for by top-slicing the teaching grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So further funding cuts for universities in Wales are going to be imposed precisely in order to subsidise English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England. If the new measures go ahead I can see fewer English students coming to Wales, and more Welsh students going to England. This will have deeply damaging consequences for the Welsh Higher Education system.

It’s very surprising that the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, who form part of the governing coalition in the Welsh Assembly, have gone along with this strange move. It’s good for Welsh students, but not good for Welsh universities. I would have thought that the best plan for Welsh students would be to keep up the bursaries but apply them only for study in Wales. That way both students and institutions will benefit and the Welsh Assembly’s budget will actually be spent in Wales, which is surely what is supposed to happen…

Well, the changes did go ahead, and now the consequences are becoming depressingly clear.

The figures in the BBC story suggest something that I’ve also worried about, which is that the WAG policy might actually increase the number of Welsh students deciding to study in England, while also decreasing the number of other students deciding to study in Wales. Why would this happen? Well, it’s because, at least in STEM subjects, the tuition fee paid in England attracts additional central funding from HEFCE. This additional resource is nowhere near as much as it should be, but is still better than in Wales. Indeed it was precisely by cutting the central teaching grant that the Welsh Government was able to fund its bursaries in the first place. So why should an English student decide to forego additional government support by choosing to study in Wales, and why should a Welsh student decide to do likewise by not going to England?

I really hope the Welsh Government decides to change its policy. There didn’t seem to be any chance of a U-turn while Leighton Andrews remained in charge, but now that he’s gone perhaps there’s hope.

Farewell, then, Leighton Andrews…

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 27, 2013 by telescoper

Although I no longer live in Wales I couldn’t resist commenting on the resignation, announced on Tuesday, of the Welsh Education Minister, Leighton Andrews. It seems that Mr Andrews was spotted holding a placard protesting against the planned closure of a school, a closure that results from his own policies. Personally, I think that it’s quite an imaginative move for a Minister to campaign against his own policies. It shows an open-mindedness absent in most politicians.

Leighton Andrews will probably be best remembered as the architect of the policy that students domiciled in Wales would be protected from having to pay large tuition fee rise by a system of grants, meaning that the Welsh Assembly will pick up the tab for Welsh students. They will still have to pay the “old”  fee level of £3290 per annum, but the WAG will pay the extra approx £6K charged by most Universities since the fee cap was raised. This is good news for the students of course, but the grants will be available to Welsh students not just for study in Welsh universities but wherever they choose to go. Since about 16,000 Welsh students are currently at university in England, this means that the WAG is handing over a great big chunk (up to 16,000 × £6000 = £96 million) of its hard-earned budget straight back to England. This has always seemed to me a very strange thing to do when the Welsh Government is constantly complaining that the Barnett formula doesn’t give them enough money in the first place.

What’s more, the Welsh Assembly grants for Welsh students are paid for by top-slicing the grants that HECFW makes to Welsh universities. So funding cuts for universities in Wales have been  imposed in order to subsidize English universities. This is hardly in the spirit of devolution either!

English students wanting to study in Wales will have to pay full whack, but will be paying to attend universities whose overall level of state funding is even lower than in England (at least for STEM subjects whose subsidy is protected in England). Currently about 25,000 English students study in Wales, compared with the 16,000 Welsh students who study in England, but I wonder how many of them realize that if they study England their £9K fee attracts an additional investment of £1.5K from HEFCE whereas there is no equivalent central resource supplied by HEFCW if they study in Wales? To put it another way, each £1 of tuition fee paid by a STEM student is worth £1.16 in England, but just £1 in Wales.

The other drastic implication of this policy is that HEFCW will have no money left to fund research via the QR mechanism that pertains in England (at least for the time being). I blogged about this a couple of days ago so won’t say any more today.

I don’t think any of my former colleagues in Cardiff are terribly upset to see Leighton Andrews go, but there is some nervousness about whether the replacement might be even worse. The new Education Minister is Huw Lewis. I wish him well in his new post, and hope he has the courage to question some of the decisions made by his predecessor that have had such a negative effect on education in Wales.

Anyway, in bidding farewell to Leighton Andrews I thought I’d show him all due respect, and do him the honour of presenting a look-alike. All reference to Muppets purely coincidental…

Slide1

Switching Allegiances

Posted in Biographical, Education, Football, Rugby with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2013 by telescoper

So here I am, then, in the office on a Sunday afternoon,which I suspect is going to be a pretty regular occurrence for the foreseeable future. I mainly came in to sort out papers for tomorrow’s Senior Management Group meeting, which will be the first such meeting I’ll be attending in my new capacity. I have managed to prepare for it in fine style by losing my diary, which isn’t a very good start to my career as any kind of manager.

Yesterday was taken up with flat-hunting which, if all turns out well this time, was successful. I also had time to watch a bit of the opening match of the Six Nations Rugby between Wales and Ireland. For the last five years or so I’ve always been in Cardiff for Wales’ first home game of the competition, although I’ve never actually managed to get a ticket for the match. It felt a bit strange not being there anyway. It has to be said that Wales were pretty chronic in the first half, going into the break at 30-3 down, but they recovered in the second half and it was quite an absorbing match all considered. Ireland’s excellent defence held off a spirited Welsh comeback and Ireland won 30-22.

Although I’ve lived in Wales for a while, and have enjoyed the match-day atmosphere in Cardiff, I’ve never switched allegiance from England as far as rugby is concerned. Later on yesterday England beat Scotland in their opening match of the Six Nations, showing quite a bit of flair in doing so but also making quite a lot of mistakes. The 38-18 scoreline flattered England, I felt, and they’ll have to up their game a lot if they’re going to match Wales’ Grand Slam last season.

Football is another matter in which allegiances are difficult to change. Many’s the time I’ve thought of giving up being a Newcastle United supporter but I’ve never managed it. I disapprove of people who think they have an option concerning which team to support, actually. I was born in Newcastle therefore I support Newcastle United. That’s the end of it. We all have our cross to bear. Anyway, yesterday brought an unexpected ray of sunshine into a gloomy season for the Toon with a 3-2 victory over Chelsea. Following a first away win of the season against Aston Villa last week it may even be possible that they’ll avoid relegation. Perhaps.

Switching allegiances between universities is almost as difficult. In today’s academic world we’re supposed to think of higher education as a marketplace in which different institutions compete for funding for both teaching and research. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea that opening up higher education to “market forces” is in anyone’s interests. Certainly on the research side, there are so many collaborations between groups in different universities that cooperation is more the rule than competition although, as with any rule, there are exceptions. Friendly rivalry is as good a thing in higher education as it is in football, but anything more serious than that can only be justified in the case of Sunderland.

Reffing Madness

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2012 by telescoper

I’m motivated to make a quick post in order to direct you to a blog post by David Colquhoun that describes the horrendous behaviour of the management at Queen Mary, University of London in response to the Research Excellence Framework. It seems that wholesale sackings are in the pipeline there as a result of a management strategy to improve the institution’s standing in the league tables by “restructuring” some departments.

To call this strategy “flawed” would be the understatement of the year. Idiotic is a far better word.  The main problem being that the criteria being applied to retain or dismiss staff bear no obvious relation to those adopted by the REF panels. To make matters worse, Queen Mary has charged two of its own academics with “gross misconduct” for having the temerity to point out the stupidity of its management’s behaviour. Read on here for more details.

With the deadline for REF submissions fast approaching, it’s probably the case that many UK universities are going into panic mode, attempting to boost their REF score by shedding staff perceived to be insufficiently excellent in research and/or  luring  in research “stars” from elsewhere. Draconian though the QMUL approach may seem, I fear it will be repeated across the sector.  Clueless university managers are trying to guess what the REF panels will think of their submissions by staging mock assessments involving external experts. The problem is that nobody knows what the actual REF panels will do, except that if the last Research Assessment Exercise is anything to go by, what they do will be nothing like what they said they would do.

Nowhere is the situation more absurd than here in Wales. The purported aim of the REF is to allocated the so-called “QR” research funding to universities. However, it is an open secret that in Wales there simply isn’t going to be any QR money at all. Leighton Andrews has stripped the Higher Education budget bare in order to pay for his policy of encouraging Welsh students to study in England by paying their fees there.

So here we have to enter the game, do the mock assessments, write our meaningless “impact” cases, and jump through all manner of pointless hoops, with the inevitable result that even if we do well we’ll get absolutely no QR money at the end of it. The only strategy that makes sense for Welsh HEIs such as Cardiff University, where I work, is to submit only those researchers guaranteed to score highly. That way at least we’ll do better in the league tables. It won’t matter how many staff actually get submitted, as the multiplier is zero.

There’s no logical argument why Welsh universities should be in the REF at all, given that there’s no reward at the end. But we’re told we have to by the powers that be. Everyone’s playing games in which nobody knows the rules but in which the stakes are people’s careers. It’s madness.

I can’t put it better than this quote:

These managers worry me. Too many are modest achievers, retired from their own studies, intoxicated with jargon, delusional about corporate status and forever banging the metrics gong. Crucially, they don’t lead by example.

Any reader of this blog who works in a university will recognize the sentiments expressed there. But let’s not blame it all on the managers. They’re doing stupid things because the government has set up a stupid framework. There isn’t a single politician in either England or Wales with the courage to do the right thing, i.e. to admit the error and call the whole thing off.