UK General Election 2015 for the confused and apathetic

When it comes to general elections, people tend to turn to the biggest political geek they know and ask them to explain it. For a lot of people I know, this means that they ask me. So this is a basic post on how to (or how I try to) read the election, how it works and what might happen. Though I have my own political views and preferences, I’ve left them out of this post.

If you’ve read this far, REGISTER TO VOTE. That’s a link to the official site, you have to do it before the 20th April. Even if you were registered to vote at the same address last time round, you still need to register, the process has changed. You can do it online, it takes five minutes.

Done that? No? Go back and do it, then read on. I’m serious, I’m banning you from the rest of this post unless you are registered to vote.

Part 1 – general elections for the terrified

As a newly registered UK voter, your next question is probably “who should I vote for?”. Forget everything you thought you knew about UK political parties and do the Vote for Policies quiz. This is both faster than reading all the party manifestos (which, let’s face it, you weren’t going to do) and more helpful for you in deciding who to vote for.

Politics is not football. You do not have to vote for the same people as you always have, or that your friends and family vote for. If the “Vote for policies” quiz outcome feels very odd to you, try also the Political Compass test which will tell you where you sit on the political spectrum and which parties are closer to the way you feel about the world.

At this stage, you probably have a party in mind. It would be a good idea to spend some time reading about them, possibly even reading their manifesto. Here’s a list of links to PDF versions of the manifestos of the biggest parties.

If you’ve chosen another party, you will need to check whether they are running in your constituency because you can’t vote for them otherwise. (Or you might be in Northern Ireland, who have different parties that I know next to nothing about!) No matter what any one else tells you, it is fine to vote for a smaller party if they care about the same things you do.

The manifesto is, effectively, a promise that each party makes concerning what they will do if they are the government. Without exception, they are long, tedious documents and very few people read any of them, so feel free to skim or just read the parts that interest you. Manifestos are not legally binding contracts, especially when it comes to a coalition government (as we will see later in this post).

But politics in the UK is, fundamentally, local. You’ve most likely had a load of leaflets through your door already, and if you are anything like me, you’ve read none of them. Despite the general election being a national (UK wide) election, you are electing some one to stand up to the bit of the UK that you live in (called your constituency).

To find details of your constituency, look for the place you live on Wikipedia, and the constituency page is linked to from that page. You need the “UK Parliament” constituency – usually in a box on the right-hand side of Wikipedia pages. The constituency page will tell you a little bit about the constituency, who was elected there the last few times, and who is standing for election there this year. Another useful resource is , which indexes leaflets used by local candidates and can be a useful way of finding out where they stand on particular local issues without going through the bin.

Having done all this, all you have to do is stroll up to your local polling station and complete a voting slip. You give your name and address, they give you a slip, you fill it in privately, put it in the sealed box and that’s you done. The location of your local polling station will be on your voting card, or if you’ve lost it – don’t worry if you have, you don’t need it to vote – you can call your local election office to find out where your polling station is. It will be near your home, rather than your place of work, and will be open from 7am-11pm.

After 11pm, all the votes are taken to a big hall somewhere in your constituency, and counted. You are allowed to go and watch this, but there’s no reason for you to do so unless you like looking at tired people shuffling paper. Some time in the early hours of the morning a result will be announced (it’ll be live on TV for those who care), and the person with the most votes is your Member of Parliament.

Part 2 – but who is going to win?

No one.

Seriously, no one. All of the indicators that politics nerds like me care about (and that I’ll tell you about later) suggest that no one party will win enough constituencies to have more seats than all the other parties put together, so no party will be able to form a majority government.

Majority governments have good points and bad points – they’re what we’ve had in the UK for most of our history, and they mean that the manifesto of the winning party is likely to be (mostly) implemented. But a majority government usually means that no other party gets a real say in how the country is governed.

There are three other kind of governments, and it is likely we will have one of these (or some combination of these) resulting from the 2015 election.

A coalition government is what we have now, where two or more parties agree on enough issues that they can form a government together. These are largely stable, and are common in Europe and elsewhere, but have been rare in UK parliamentary history.

A minority government is when one party has to convince at least some people from some of the other parties to vote for their ideas on each and every thing they try to do. It is at huge risk from a “confidence vote”, which is where someone from another party has suggested that the country has no confidence that government can safely govern.

A confidence and supply arrangement is when one party agrees to support another in terms of supply (voting for the budget) and confidence (voting with the other party if there is a “confidence” vote). Other than that, it is the same as a minority government, just a little bit more stable.

So having found a party you support, and read about the promises that it has made in their manifesto, there is literally no need for you to pay any attention to the rest of the campaign (seriously! although some people like that kind of thing, you are not a bad person for being bored with it) EXCEPT FOR paying attention to what parties are saying about working together. If there is a party you don’t like (for whatever reason) and a party you do like says it is willing to work with them in one of the three ways above, you might want to rethink your vote. Or you might not, again – up to you.

Here is what I can tell, so far, about what might happen after May 7th.

The polls suggest that we will have a hung parliament, where no one party has enough votes to form a majority. They suggest that the two largest parties will be Labour and the Conservatives, in terms of a share of the national vote – which – because of quirks in our UK electoral system means that Labour will have slightly more seats than the Conservatives, but not enough more to form a government.

The polls predict that the next biggest parties will be (in order of the number of seats they will hold) the Scottish National Party (SNP), UKIP, the Liberal Democrats (LDs), Plaid Cymru (PC) and the Green Party.

[if you are interested in polls and polling, two good places to start are Electoral Calculus and the UK Polling Report. Polling is a far from exact science, and it is not statistically safe to extrapolate from a single poll or even a summary of polls to an exact result. Some people think that the betting markets (the sum of all the bets that people put on the election) are also a good method of prediction, if you are interested in this start at Political Betting]

We also know what each party has said about working with other parties.

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives have said that they want to work with any other parties, both are still hoping to win an overall majority. Most of the calculations that political geeks are making are based around the practicalities of forming a majority, and the expressed preferences of the smaller parties.

The Liberal Democrats have said that they will work with either Labour or the Conservatives in a coalition. They reckon they can temper what they see as the excesses of both parties. However, the LDs are likely to lose a lot of seats this year and would be unlikely to be able to see a majority government formed by their coalition with either of the main parties. The LDs have also ruled out working with UKIP in any way, but have not expressed a preference regarding the SNP, PC, or the Greens.

The SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens have all indicated that they would support a Labour-led government on an issue-by-issue basis which may (I think) extend as far as a confidence and supply agreement. They have all ruled out working with a Conservative-led government and/or with UKIP but I’m not aware that they have ruled out working with the LDs. This is the most significant grouping, as Labour working with the SNP would work out as a parliamentary majority. Plaid Cymru and the Greens are both likely to have only a very small number of seats in the new parliament, but would still be keen to be involved.

UKIP have ruled out working with Labour in any way. Their stance towards the Conservatives keeps changing, but I could see them at least supporting a Conservative-led government on an issue-by-issue basis. But it is unlikely (on current polling) that UKIP will win a large enough number of seats to make a Conservative-led government possible.

Based on the above and on current polling, it is most likely that Labour will lead the next government with the support of the SNP and others (which could include any of the other main parties with the exception of the Conservatives and UKIP). A Conservative-led government supported by the LDs, or a Labour-led government supported by the LDs are the only other plausible outcomes (again, based on current polling). The Guardian Poll Projection is, for me, the best visual way of understanding this.

So the post-election government will involve at least two parties being able to implement at least some of their manifesto. Precisely what form a new government will take will be hammered out largely behind closed doors between the morning of the 8th May and the morning of the 18th May (when Parliament will formally re-open and the business of government will start again.)

Finally, 99% of everything you will read about the election will be biased towards one party or another. Take everything with a huge pinch of salt, do research yourself on issues that interest you ( is a great starting place). Above all, vote out of hope and not fear, and vote for what you believe in.

Open Education Rules, OK?

Taking (as I am wont to do) a book recommendation from Mark Johnson’s ever-wonderful “Daily Improvisation” I have been reading David Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy”It’s (as you would expect) a wonderful read with a lot to take away.

For me, the book revolved around the differences between two interlinked concepts – that even share the same word in many languages – the idea of “play” and the idea of a “game”. He develops this theme following on from a riff on the bureaucratic aspects of fantasy fiction – noting that it really is only the “baddies” that appear to have a bureaucracy.

But “play”, to Graeber, is the free expression of creativity, and “games” are the structures and rules that we put in place to constrain and focus this free expression.

“What this suggests is that people, everywhere, are prone to two completely contradictory tendencies: on the one hand, a tendency to be playfully creative just for the sake of it; on the other, a tendency to agree with anyone who tells them that they really shouldn’t act that way. This latter is what makes the game-ification of institutional life possible” (chapter 3)

Yes, there’s *that* word.

Educational game-ification is inherent in the rules by which the game of education is played. There is a direct read-across to institutional game-ification, which has another set of rules that (in some cases) underpin the rules of education. And in such a nested and complex ruleset, it is fair to bewail the lack of creativity – as rules expand to fill the spaces where innovation used to reign.

But on the other hand, what is something like, say, the DS106 Daily Create but a set of rules to constrain innovation? Imposing constraints can also be a way to foster creativity – the OULIPO movement collects and documents constraints that can support creativity (many of which do look a lot like daily creates).

In bureaucracy, a similar constrained creativity is used to circumvent and use institutional systems to achieve personal goals, be they in a positive “lead user” sense of solving necessary problems, or in the negative sense of creating interesting new ones and thus highlighting the absurdity of the rules.

A ruled space is can be seen as (literally!) a striated space in a Deleuzian sense, with all of the benefits and drawbacks that this implies. But to be fully striated, an un-ruled contingent space would also be required – a space without this contrast would be smooth: “a space of affects, more than one of properties”.

Rules are – of course – inherently arbitrary in the sense that they have an arbitrator, which in most of the games we play (in education and in institutions) is not us. The affect can be seen in the irrational – rather than the rational – decisions made by, for example, a vice-chancellor.

So for me, the negative experiences of game-ification come when the creativity of the arbitrator is not up to the task of responding and adapting to the creativity of the game player in ways that foster rather than restrict. Those who have played invented games managed by small children will recognise the feeling of a system that adapts only to preserve existing status rather than to open new creative status – you try persuading a seven-year-old that “octopus” is a valid move in scissor/paper/stone :-)

It is this feeling the permeates many of the systems that define the way we live, work, play and learn. The feeling that a system will adapt to constrain your creativity rather than foster it, even if the latter is of more benefit to the overall health of the system.

In open education (yes, I got there in the end) we are at something of a crossroads: where we are agreeing on constraints (what *is* open? where is open? how can we find open?). Those arguing for space to play are often seen as “unrealistic”, those arguing for rule structures to direct creativity are seen as “dictatorial”.

The simple truth is that we need both, and we need to recognise that. We need rules and requirements, but we need to be flexible enough to change as the world changes.

Fixing the roof even while it is cloudy and changeable.

Student fees, eh? Sort them out and you’ve sorted out English HE. Or, at least, that’s what the assembled general election candidates appear to be suggesting.

I’ve been over before how the botched, mis-sold, implementation of the Browne system that we are living through is a festering sore on the underbelly of all that is true and holy about quality policy making – and remains the economic equivalent of Jeremy Clarkson demanding a late-night steak made entirely out of cuts to other parts of the BIS budget.

Lancing the thing before it dwarfs David Cameron’s hair-dye bill is simply good public policy management, and the fact that so vanishingly few of the parties people may wish to vote for (and also the Liberal Democrats) are actually proposing to do this is another reason to stare at the floor muttering helplessly. When the best that the mainstream parties can offer is Labour’s offer of only twice what fees were in 2010 without any underlying change in the system, we are looking at a weak set of ideas indeed.

Martin “MoneySavingExpert™” Lewis, that everyman champion of the pound in your pocket (and the several million pounds of Money Supermarket’s in his) has his face set against the idea of even this mild amelioration, because – y’know, rich people and stuff.

Because only those graduates who earn a respectable ,though not insanely so, salary (think senior teachers, middle-ranking civil servants and supermarket managers) will benefit from not paying the last £3,000 – Lewis is set against the whole idea.

He’s wrong, and this is why:

His “student loan calculator” makes, as you would expect, a number of assumptions concerning the future state of the economy. Just to pick on a couple, it assumes an annual average salary growth of RPI+2% (currently the average is a little over than 1%, growth has been negative over the past 7 years. And who the hell uses RPI any more??). It assumes inflation will sit at 3% – (CPI) currently lies at a hefty 0.0%, with every expectation that it will turn negative.

It also makes a number of assumptions about graduates, namely that they stay in the same job – without any career breaks – from graduation to retirement, with salary increasing smoothly and dependably from that point. So, not for our hypothetical graduate the traditional path of working an entry-level job for a while then jumping into management.

Figures drawn from these (or any) approximation are liable to bear little or no resemblance to lived reality – but even assuming that they do there is a whole load of other things to consider.

Like the tax system: could high earning graduates end up paying additional income tax (or property tax, or – hell – VAT) than those earning less. Absolutely they will. Will paying (say) 50% rather than 45% on the top end of your income offset the £3,000 this policy would save our hypothetical head-teacher? We don’t know. Will a society riven with an growing divide between the rich and poor eventually elect a government with a more progressive approach to tax? Quite possibly.

So let’s also add in the effect on choice. How much more difficult would it be to get a mortgage with a hypothetical £27,000+ of unsecured debt rather than £18,000+ or indeed none? As yet, no-one knows – the first “new system” cohort graduate this only year. What are the “magic” barriers where an increase in wages will be offset by an increase in repayment rates? – meaning you don’t take a salary increase as it leaves you and your family worse off. The data isn’t there.

So let’s move away from guesswork about the state of our country and economy in 30 years time and into the realm of things we actually know.

Firstly – and to me most importantly – increasing direct state funding for all students (the corollary of cutting the fees) closes a regulatory hole that has lain gaping since 2011 and has seen some truly dreadful behaviour by university managers. The Browne travesty effectively privatised the UK public institutions, greatly increased the impact of HE on state finances and saddled students with 30 years of debt – truly the worst of all possible worlds. The regulatory deficit is, by a nose, the most insidious of the three as it allowed (deliberately) universities to act in the interest of their balance sheet rather than their students or their funders (which remains the state until the system breaks even some time in the 2040s). We’ve seen sustained and unprecedented attacks on the terms and conditions of staff, and we’ve seen complaints by students rise (even as lip service is paid to the unholy mess that is the National Student Survey).

An additional (£3,000) short term cost to the government per student make more sense to the national finances than a long term cost that is already projected to be more than £3,000 per student. We’ve seen the RAB rate rise and rise as the economy continues to become more hostile to young people. Obviously I’d prefer that we did something other than subsidise low pay via the benefit system (that would make long term economic sense too!) but as this seems to be the consensus we should probably admit it exists.

If so many graduates are not and were never going to pay back the top £3k or the interest accruing on it, why lend them it?

Finally, and as Lewis – to be fair – does point out, there is a psychological benefit. I still think £6k is a lot of money (measuring, as I do, the cost of everything in terms of the price of Nord keyboards) but it is less than £9k. £6k, bluntly, is just over £5k – or enough for a fairly respectable Nord rig, whereas £9k is near enough £10k and could get me two.

“But what about Living Costs?” I hear you cry. “Couldn’t we use this £3k for extra living cost grants?” – well yes, we could. But this wouldn’t fix the massive issue with how much we – as a country – are spending on fees. We need to get that under control – it may be less attractive, but it needs doing.

A local licence for Henbury! (a response to @HEPI_news)

In line with proposals published by the most august and esteemed of our Higher Education think tanks, I’ve decided to experiment with “local” licences. Whilst there is much to commend the idea of a “national” licence, such as a splendid sense of isolation and old maids cycling to communion through the morning mist, I feel aggrieved that the world class research carried out by the fine folk of Henbury, (in the north of Bristol) can be read by those as far afield as Stoke Bishop, Catbrain and even Brentry without any expectation of reciprocity.

Such a licence would allow open access to all research carried out within Henbury, within Henbury. To the knee-jerk zealots that say that this is unworkable, I offer the following response:

  • Requests from IP addresses within the Henbury area will be honoured… no, hang on, what about people from Westbury on Trym who come to the Toby Carvery?
  • Maybe we issue a Henbury browser certificate to all Henburyians? Would that work? Maybe a bit of a hassle to get it on to all devices, and I suppose it could be copied…
  • wait, what about people who live in Henbury and then leave? Could we revoke access there?
  • Or a password – but that could be shared outside Henbury…

Actually, I’ll come back to the technical implementation another time. The important think is identifying what research is conducted in Henbury…

  • So that’s Dr Yeoh at number 22, that new couple in number 14, and Professor Hartson down by the co-op, ooh and Dr Akharta in that posh house up on Dragonswell Road…
  • But Dr Yeoh normally publishes with Dr Martin, and she lives in Henleaze. So maybe we just allow access to half of those papers…
  • … and that new couple probably wrote some of their research whilst they rented that flat in Redland, so only papers after 2015 from them…
  • … and Dr Akharta is a part of that huge research project with people all over the world. That last paper of his had 60 authors from 13 countries…

I’m sure we’ll sort that out.

Anyway, the important thing is coming to an agreement with publishers. I spoke to Evil Sir and they estimate 0.006 of the papers in their journals are from Henbury, and would allow access to Henburians at £30 per paper, plus a £8000000000 admin charge and some chips with garlic mayo and chilli sauce (is that not double-dipping?)

Pearsona Nongrata, meanwhile, don’t want to enter into a local license at all. And what about those funny “open” journals that are so popular these days – they persist in showing Henburian research to the whole world. We’ll need to put a stop to that! Oh yes!

Where was I?

Yes, the economic benefits. The economic benefits to the publishing industry would be massive. Which is good, except that no publishers are based in Henbury, and most are in fact multinational. And I suppose Henbury researchers will have the opportunity to build on Henbury research, but they make reference to research from all over the world – most likely that openly licensed stuff they are all into. Even more so in those collaborative papers with people from far flung places like Sneyd Park and Clifton Village.

Local businesses will gain from all this Henbury research – but the Pet Shop on Crow Lane already work with that Dr Harby from up the top of the estate on canine digestive motility. And they found out about that research from one of those open journals.

So in conclusion, I’m right, this is a great idea, and anyone that disagrees is a zealot and wants to close down debate.

(comments on this post have been disabled by request)


Any data will do: a review of Michael Barber’s “How to run a government”

How to run a government: so that citizens benefit and taxpayers don’t go crazy” is the unlikely and unwieldy title of Sir Michael Barber’s latest iteration of the “deliverology” mythos.

I use the word “mythos” advisedly. Despite fervent hopes otherwise, there is no “science” of delivery any more than there is a “science” of policy or strategy, and likewise there is little humanity to be found. The mythical register is one that comes easily to Sir Michael, emboldened by keynotes and soundbites, and drawing on caricatures from history, literature and contemporary politics.

The opening of the final chapter, which essentially retells the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt using the language of modern public policy, was perhaps the moment where the absurdity of the edifice won out and tears of laughter ran down my face.

Pharaoh’s dream as interpreted by Joseph – what we would now call a Treasury Forecast – suggested that […] boom and bust had not yet ended.

[…] draw a trajectory for gathered corn, which will result in a store of at least 140% of the baseline. Then strengthen the delivery chain.

[…] He built a data system and started counting the grain (or had someone like Tony O’Connor count it for him).

Barber, chapter 7.

You get the idea.

Barber’s conception of “delivery” describes the frictionless movement of an idea between the head of a politician and the headache of a junior public servant – but the book spends as much, if not more time in ensuring that information – of a sort – is returned and aggregated to keep said politician engaged in their project. For an avowed attempt to define a science, Barber’s standards of data are low – he argues that even poor quality data is better than no data. A scientist would proceed with more care.

Structured as a manual, and cutely decorated with 57 key “rules” (largely kept under 140 characters), the text itself has a self-conscious and self-effacing wit that the TED-style “appeals to anecdote” largely undermine. Neither realpolitik nor history has the clarity required to illustrate the clean lines of deliverology – many of the stories and asides undermine themselves in their completion.

I’ve written a lot about Barber and deliverology. I was scathing about the many flaws in”Avalanche is Coming“, oddly moved by the honesty of “Instruction to Deliver“. “How to run a government” sits in between the two: some of the content of the latter presented in the style of the former (though much better referenced).

As a system of government, deliverology has on the surface an apolitical appeal. It comes across as the art of getting stuff done in the public sector – perhaps a way for a latter-day Jim Hacker to best Sir Humphrey. However, like Sir Michael’s own career, (from the CBfT delivery of his much-vaunted literacy hour onwards) much of this entails going outside the public sector entirely.

It is an expression of our current political consensus to the extent that this is hardly worthy of remark. It is a description of the big data, small government, permanent austerity neo-liberal consensus. As a myth, it defined and shaped the reality of public service long before it was expressed in this form.

It is a world-view that contains no possibility of genuine dissent. Even the idea of the “red team” – taken from military planning techniques (and Barber’s obvious delight with efficient military delivery is deeply disquieting given his Quaker upbringing.) is as a licensed cynic – a court jester improving rather than vetting an unstoppable plan.

So what can we learn about the myth and the flawed reality of public service delivery-as-a-“science”? Three select quotes give us a path in to the darker side of the deliverology mindset:

“More for less trumps investment for reform” (rule 50)

“Trust and Altruism is popular but doesn’t work (other than in unusual circumstances)” (rule 15)

“I am not recommending the content here to blatant autocracies or “extractive regimes” interested purely in enriching themselves, though of course I can’t be sure that some of them won’t read the words.” (Introduction)

Efficiency, as I am sure Sir Michael would agree, is not the same as efficacy. And “more with less” does not mean the current offer plus more, it means a shift in spending and a shift in delivery. Writing today in the FT (£), he repeats his contrast between the Blairite “investment for reform”, and the austerer coalition demand for better results at lest cost”. Not only is this economically illiterate (currently the national deficit is roughly the same as it was in ’97, growth in GDP quarter by quarter is slightly higher…), it also betrays a presumption towards smaller government and privatisation that reveal his Blairite, or indeed Thatcherite, roots.

Trust and Altruism refers to any governance regime with a preference for professional expertise over managerial oversight, and it is telling that despite a clear argument to the contrary (presented around schools in Finland) such methods are presumed never to work. Mere expertise has no answer to measurement and prescription – and again for reforming purposes we are directed to other agenda based around market narratives, making Barber possibly the only writer in history to marry the biblical story of the patriarch Joseph with the ideas of the patriarchal Sir Michael Joseph.

Finally, the point about autocracies seems like a disclaimer but hides something more problematic – delivery by control and measurement is (historically) the management methodology of the autocrat.

Barber’s career and ideas illustrate the gradual drift of the centre-ground of British politics to the authoritarian right. You should read this book, but you should read it as a cautionary tale of how far down the road of managerial public service we have come, and as a spur to consider how and where we can turn in another direction.

Hey, Hey #6k (what does that get you today?)

Though we saw a decent amount of detail from the Labour policy announcement, which was – to the surprise of many – fully costed, there are still a number of loose ends that need to be tied up. The “zero based review” provided a decent summary of the already well-documented failings of the up to 9k fees model (and mentions RAB! hurrah!). What I’d love to have seen was a similar level of detail on the workings of the proposed new plan.

For those of you who haven’t been glued to Wonkhe’s superb live coverage the guts of the policy go something like this:

  • Maximum fees, per year, that can charged by universities would be £6k – down from £9k
  • Maintenance grants would rise by £400, so for students from families earning less than £25k this will go from about £3,400 now to £3,800. (This only applies to lower and middle income families, which are those eligible for grants anyway I think.)
  • Loan repayments would be at a higher interest rate (4%) for graduates earning more than £41k/year. (otherwise at 3%)
  • Plan is fully funded, so the £2.7bn drop in university funding from fee reductions is matched by £2.7bn raised by ending higher-rate tax relief on pensions.
  • And all this is “cast iron”, non-negotiable in the event of a coalition, red line in the sand going to happen if Labour are in power.

Labour offer a short summary, and Emily Lupton at Wonhke expands on this.

This is all well and good. Actually, it is better than that: it’s a decent piece of public policy making – it’s costed, it’s based on real needs, it is revenue-neutral for universities and it makes sense long term for government finances.

But I’d be handing back my wonk-card in disgrace if I hadn’t spotted some issues that need to be addressed.

1. OFFA – currently universities are allowed to charge up to £6k/year in fees, unless they have a plan approved by OFFA which would allow the maximum to go up to £9k. (currently all English public universities have a plan approved by OFFA). With a reduction of this total price from £9k to £6k – would the non-OFFA approved limit be £3k fees charged to students? Or would the OFFA approval apply to the directly public-funded component of university funding? Which leads us to…

2. HEFCE – When funds are given by HEFCE they  apply their “financial memorandum” (from last year replaced by the “memorandum of assurance and accountability” which links to the register of providers and makes up for the regulatory wasteland that is the bequest of our current government) to it – which commits the receiving institutions to doing certain things (data returns, subscription payments…) if they want to have the money.

If the £2.7bn of direct public funding that replaces the lost fee income goes through HEFCE, this gives HEFCE a lot more power over what institutions do. Which is popular with people who like to see accountable spending of public funds, but would be less popular with people who run universities.

The VC-friendly option would be to use this £2.7bn to replace the borrowing that the government does on behalf of the Student Finance (England) in order that it can pay what has been loaned to students to institutions. So the Student Finance (England) would still pay £9k (ish) a year per students to institutions directly (as now), but with a chunk of this coming from tax income rather than borrowing.

Student Finance (England) don’t attach a financial memorandum to their payments to institutions, so the (less powerful) interim list-based arrangement would still suffice. Unless anyone in the next coalition manages to sort the HE Bill out and get it through parliament, something that David Willetts didn’t manage to do.

3. Martin Lewis - TV’s “Money Saving Expert” (TM)  still reckons that this is a regressive policy as it is only the best paid graduates that get the benefit of paying £6k rather than £9k – everyone else defaults when the cut-off point comes in. He’s *so* Money Supermarket.

Thing is – we all get the benefit because less people default and more people pay back their loans (this also makes them easier to sell…). And the extra interest rate for higher-earning graduates means that they pay back more money that they didn’t borrow.

[EDIT 28/02/15] The IFS briefing is interesting here too – especially given that the supposedly non-progressive nature (higher earning graduates benefiting the most) of the policy has been the main attack line from other parties.

But what is missing from the IFS calculation is the fact that higher earning graduates will be paying more tax (perhaps including Labour’s proposed 50p tax band, and most likely being affected by the end of higher-rate tax relief on pensions.) The actuarial modelling required here will go far beyond my capacity to come up with a sensible answer, but it is very likely that higher-earning graduates will be contributing more to HE funding through general taxation.]

4. Student number controls will there be any? We don’t know yet. If funding flows through HEFCE then this would be likely (HEFCE has number controls on the small amount of supplementary funding it currently controls).

I’m sure more will emerge as more detail does,  but those are the big questions for me.

Shame, pain, disdain and learning gain

Why don’t people fund small things any more?

I’ve been following policy developments in English HE aimed at modifying academic behaviour over the past few weeks : specifically (though not exclusively) a HEFCE seminar on “Learning Gain” and the ongoing deliberation around the REF and HEFCE’s (shortly to be released) allocation of QR funding that will be linked to it.

The latent conspiracy theorist in me insists that I mention that both “Learning Gain” and the “Impact” component of the REF are being designed and delivered by Rand Europe. And Rand, in a triumph of private sector management excellence, are basically doing the same job twice.

Though in disparate fields, both initiatives are an attempt to do the following:

  • to measure an attribute of education or research that was previously thought immeasurable.
  • to use this scheme of measurement nationally, across multiple institutions in multiple contexts
  • to make an assessment of the activity that allows significant gain to be made against these measurement schemes.
  • To reward and fund these areas of “excellence”, to encourage others

(anyone who is muttering “deliverology” or “new public management” here gets extra credit)

The big stretch comes with the first – convincing otherwise sane and rational people that the huge methodological, ethical and contextual problems that measure multi-variable second-order effects on human beings can simply disappear if you are the RAND corporation.

This faux-scientific nonsense has replaced the kind of small targeted investment in the community that has been proven to actually work. The kind of thing that other HE sectors around the world have learned from the UK and are currently implementing whilst we import failed approaches from elsewhere.

Changes in large systems like HE are substantially unlike the changes in production lines that this kind of Neotaylorism was designed to address. (It didn’t actually work too well there either…). Modern enterprises have swung round to the idea of autonomy and responsibility rather than measurement and comparison. A small investment in an expert-agent led evolution of working practices is  likely to be of much greater benefit than an intervention from someone outside the system.

And we used to do this in HE, before we got caught up the old orthodoxies of “scientific” management again.

  • comparison is not a natural motivator for beneficial process change – it only becomes a motivator if both parties to the comparison are in competition for limited resources. In my experience, this does not lead to genuine improvement in processes, but to a focus on the units of comparison themselves.
  • collaboration can be a useful way to bring about improvements in practice and efficiencies. Forced standardisation brings about a focus on the standards themselves rather than improvement.
  • autonomy is a powerful generator of innovation. Top-down imposition of change is a powerful inhibitor of innovation.
  • individual ownership, value and agency supports sustainability – enmeshing this within a collaborative community of practice multiplies this exponentially.

So why are things moving in the other direction? Primarily fear.

  • Fear felt by organisations and agencies who have lost their previous and established functions and are under real or imagined pressure to prove their worth.
  • Fear felt by institutional managers who are under real or imagined pressure to prove their worth
  • Fear felt by politicians and policy makers…

The quickest way to generate “proof” of worth is an intervention which produces a line on a graph that points upwards (again, classic deliverology). So if you are going to do this you’d first of all ensure you’ve defined a measure that would show a gain that you could link to your intervention. And this is the service that RAND Europe are offering, the effects of which is heavily multiplied by HEFCE linking impact in the REF to QR funding (and, I imagine, linking some similar funding pot to improvements in learning gain).

If there’s a CETL-sized prize (or even a couple of league table places) at the end of learning gain, I could see a lot of institutions taking it far more seriously than it deserves, and in doing so moving away from teaching innovation practices that actually work.

Which would be a shame.

Pearson: Vice City


So the Pearson Summit happened last week, at the Fontainbleu, Miami. (Next week in the same room, Michael McDonald).

And whereas I salute the guys at Pearson for opening #pearsonsummit for the world to see – seriously guys, you may have gone a bit far.

You want the wireless code? It’s online.

You want to see who was in which team building group? Aye.

The official summit spotify playlist? rock on.

You want to register to attend? Gotcha. (seriously, it would have been worth it, they got iPads)

You want to sign the Pearson Pledge? I can’t help you with what it was (but I’m guessing something to do with efficacy…), but do sign away. And check out the tins of treacle, Jerry Javelina, the Pearson Bird and numerous people called “Dave”.

If you want to get stuck in, the seekrit official iPad app is out there. Have a dig. Let me know what you find.

And of course the first day was live streamed for your viewing pleasure, and is still up for you to enjoy now.

Plenty’o’lols for all, but what did we learn from the experience (other than someone is making a mint selling iPad apps to Pearson, which is kind of ironic given the whole LA schools thing…)?

Having listened in to the first day, it feels like the last roll of the dice. To say efficacy – the in-house deliverology-esqe way of figuring out whether their stuff works in the classroom is being pushed hard is an understatement. They mean it, maaaaan. FOTA favourite Sir Michael Barber plays the bewildering part of process evangelist – met often with incomprehension as he attempts to solve decades-old problems in education research with a series of surveys used to generate metrics.

Briefly, education is riven with confounding variables – you get the chance to do studies, but need to take into account that each data point refers to a particular learner in a particular context. You could cite the textbook as a key input, or what the student had for breakfast. And these problems do not go away with the bigness of the data – PISA and (Pearson’s closely linked) the Learning Curve are similarly useless for anyone other than politicians and policy-makers looking at made-up league tables.

So that’s the publisher value proposition – with Pearson stuff (increasingly EdTech rather than boring old books) students can learn more betterer. And look, they have data and graphs to prove it.

We know the graphs will be nonsense (this is, after all, Michael Barber) – but institutional managers don’t. And institutional managers don’t talk to the likes of us.

The Pearson Efficacy tools and guidance are, again, out there in the open on the web. I cannot think of any more urgent educational research or education journalistic task than to understand and critique it, in terms and in places that senior managers can understand.

The patient unpicking of the MOOC hysteria by the community I like to convince myself I am part of has been useful in this way. But that was a dry run for diving in, intelligently and thoughtfully, to the morass of data and ideas that constitutes Pearson Efficacy.

Or Pearson will have graphs, we won’t have graphs, and the reasons that we don’t will not be enough to hold back the tide.

[Edited to fix some links – Cheers Tony – 08/02/15]

Green Party 2015 Higher Education Policies – Analysis

First published on

Twenty fifteen is the year that we need to start paying attention to party policymaking at all levels. With any one or more of eight potential parties likely to form a government, niche areas like HE are ripe for horse-trading and deal making. With the Green Party increasing their membership and now gaining ground in the opinion polls, not least amongst students, it is a good time to review the state of their higher education policies.

Free education?

The Green Party have long promised to abolish student fees entirely, with a wider support package forming a part of what will easily be the most radical policy proposedby anyone in 2015, the UK Citizens Income. Put simply, all existing benefits plus the tax-free earnings allowance would, under a Green government, be transformed into an equal single payment to every adult citizen of the UK, paid for from the existing welfare budget plus higher taxes on earnings above this level. This basic income would allow us to make life decisions based on reasons other than economic ones – so people would choose to study for reasons of interest and personal fulfilment, rather than in order to earn enough to live.

Depending on your personal political standpoint, this is either an exhilarating or terrifying plan. It would finally break down the link between labour value and the ability to live, challenge low pay and effectively abolish poverty. However, barring a very unlikely set of circumstances it is not going to happen in 2015.

The Green Party leader Natalie Bennett has linked the costs associated with removing tuitions fees to an increase in business taxes. Of all the positions detailed relating to higher education, this seems the most likely to be brought into coalition negotiations.

But the question should be: how can we make a judgement on how keen the Green Party would be to influence government university policy in as an extreme minority partner commanding only one or two votes, and in their best case scenario of being one of several other minorities in either a coalition government or a confidence and supply arrangement? And what they would do if the party were minded to use their limited policy influence in this way?

The policy book

There is a surprising amount of current Green Party HE policy, though how much finds its way into a manifesto remains to be seen (for instance, the European Election mini-manifesto affirms free education as an aspiration but does not offer details). These policies form a part of the party’s Policies for a Sustainable Society (PSS), which constitutes a ‘book of longer-term policies’ that have been proposed and agreed upon at their conference.

This is an evolving body of policy (and explanatory preambles), changing conference by conference, and can be seen to be a summary of the views held by members, as it is members – not party officials – that propose and agree motions.

So what there is may be out of date, and it may not reflect the views of the green ‘surge’ that has joined the party over the last few months or indeed over the last parliament.

Most wonks will enjoy the Higher Education preamble (ED230-233), which sets out the place of higher education within a society focused on ‘sustainable living and not consumption-led growth’. As these ideas underpin the wider philosophical basis of Green Party policy, the emphasis is on the need to modify education provision (including a move away from a perception of HE as something that happens straight after A-levels) to meet these goals.

ED233 is one of the best short conceptualisations of the ‘crisis’ facing HE that I have seen for a long while, notable in that it links student and staff experience rather than seeing the student experience as being institutionally driven. It is worth quoting in full:

Departments are closing, students are being forced to pay increasing fees for their education, lecturers are working longer hours and receiving worsening pay and conditions and the student to tutor ratio is increasing.

Other aspects of the agreed policy position are slightly more surprising. Who would have thought, for instance, that the Green Party would favour maintaining subject diversity with a particular focus on manufacturing and industry related subjects? Or – perhaps most surprising of all – calling for a system of national accreditation for HE courses?

That latter one (covered in ED237 and ED238) is aimed at assuring academic standards across institutions. It highlights the nationalising tendency of the left of the Green Party, effectively returning us to CNAA days, and functioning as an eerie echo of some of David Willetts’ wilder ideas.

External accreditation is also raised within plans concerning access to HE (ED244), with institutions funded to deliver externally accredited ‘access courses’ to those they deem to have the potential to study at HE level. This policy muddies the water as regards institutional autonomy even further – institutions are trusted to identify those with HE potential (you’ll note no mention of tariffs or other metrics), but the access courses they used must not be accredited by the institution in question.

Green research (in higher education) policy is another expression of the tension between an anti-commercial mindset and a need to encourage the development of green and sustainable technology (a tension beautifully described in more general terms by Paul Kingsnorth). There is a particularly interesting piece of language (ED242) around ‘sufficient funding to encourage independent and ethical research’, which almost seemed to suggest a preference for non-targeted research funding and curiosity-led research.

Green international policy is interesting, to say the least. I can hear the voice of Farage in the line: ‘In some cases this can lead [Institutions] to accept international students who are less able than EU students who they reject’ (ED245), whereas ‘Higher Education Institutions will be properly funded by the state’ (ED246) seems wonderful, if perhaps over-hopeful. The two strands mesh together in the international development section of ED247, which would use state funding to support students in or from developing countries where a skills shortage exists.

The only green (as in environmental) polices overlap with the existing HEFCE sustainable development scheme, which has gone a long way to addressing these issues the party raises.


A lot of this policy is clearly outdated, outrun by developments in policy by the current and previous administrations. The entire party policy area needs a comprehensive review, and although I reached out to the party for comment on this, there was no response. As such it is moot how much of what is currently on the books would make it in to an election manifesto. The language of free education has formed a part of recent Green rhetoric, so it is to be expected that – at the very least – a reduction in student fees would be a primary policy goal.

The position on staff conditions is very interesting – and plays into wider Green concerns around work and society. It is possible to see the language around independent and ethical research, free from commercial bias, as presenting the beginnings of a move towards academic autonomy. When this position is seen alongside the nationalising tendency – though external accreditation is a huge surprise to me – we can perceive the welcome beginnings of a HE policy based around the needs of academics and students, rather than employers and institutions.

It is easy for a minor party to make unfunded promises of more spending in any area, and the Greens may well be as guilty of this as the Liberal Democrats were in 2010. But in an unpredictable political year, it’s hard to know which policies may ultimately influence future government thinking

The double-time swung classroom

I’m still working through, in my head, the implications of Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” for the way we think about mastery, and the way we think about learning.

Leaving aside the physical and emotional violence (which most reviews have focused on), I see the way it presents tuition (and musical tuition in particular) as a critique of the “flipped classroom”.

For a film set in a prestigious New York conservatory that is not Juilliard in any way, it doesn’t show very much teaching. Andrew Nieman (the young, talented and driven protagonist) does not appear to attend his institution for any reason other than to be assessed. His interactions with his tutor are simply demands that he perform to precise (though often imprecisely stated) standards.

In real Juilliard, in his first year Andrew would be playing in multiple ensembles both for training and performance purposes. He’d be studying harmony, listening skills, learning about composition and performance. Over his four year course he’d learn the skills and attitudes he’d need to be a professional musician.

And – I would venture – he would be enjoying the process, and enjoying learning from his tutors and his peers. You’d have to imagine that the fictional competitor, Shaffer, would have a similar curriculum.

In the flipped model we do see, most of the practices happens during his own time – his obsessive practising and listening. And in this, we never see him actually learn anything, simply playing what he does know faster and more aggressively, beyond the limits of his mind and body.

In musicianly terms, we never see him form any kind of beneficial relationship with his peers. Such is the relentless focus on competition that he sees the people he should be forming a musical relationship with as his rivals.

You can, as a musician, learn a lot from solo practice. But until you start using and refining this technique with other musicians, it is pretty much a waste of time. Whatever your instrument, a hunt around YouTube will yield jaw-dropping but oddly unaffecting blasts of technique. And the ability to measure this technique – how fast, how many notes, how loud, how much accuracy – metricises music into a competition.

Here are similar thoughts from two professional drummers, quoted in discussion about the film:

“As far as [Nieman’s] technique and the portrayal of him working so hard that he’s bleeding, that’s completely unrealistic. When you play fast, what you learn to do is the faster you play, the more you have to relax and breathe. Any drum teacher will tell you you’re holding your sticks completely wrong if you are doing damage to your hands. So that’s really off-point. […] Jazz is a personal journey, too. You’ve gotta love that music and work really hard. That kind of teacher is a detriment to any path of improving in a way that brings joy and life to the music.” – Michael Shrieve

“A conductor or bandleader will only get good results if he or she shows as much love or enthusiasm as the discipline or toughness they dole out. Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education: for one thing, the band will not respond well; secondly, such bandleaders are anathema to the other educators who ultimately wind up acting as judges in competitive music festivals — such bands will never win (the judges will see to that) […] I’m disappointed that any viewer of the film will not see the joy of music-making that’s almost always a part of large-ensemble rehearsals and performances. Musicians make music because they LOVE music. None of that is really apparent in the film, in my opinion.” – Peter Erskine

And one genuinely impressive reviewer:

“In “Whiplash,” the young musicians don’t play much music. Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement. He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not (as [Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker did) with his peers.” – Richard Brody

“Surely,” asks a relation of Andrew’s, in one of the rare non-musician voices that we are allowed to hear, “music is subjective” so you can’t judge which is best. “No”, is the monosyllable he hears in reply. Andrew buys into this broken system of values just as much as his “tutor”.

Motherhood and apple pie, you may think. We’d never do this to our students.

And we wouldn’t, but clearly there are no systemic problems in doing this to our educators.

You’ll have read enough on #fota about targets, metrics and key performance indicators, about – god forbid – deliverology to have you checking your (quantified) self against an array of measures and and easy-to-use wipe-clean wallcharts. And let’s not even mention bloody PISA. Or the REF. Or the NSS.  Or any of the other league tables that have our managers shouting “faster!” and our peers nervously looking over their shoulders.

About something that should be fun. That should be a pleasure.

Should educators be better at educating? – yes. Do we know in what way? – no.

Not my tempo. Our tempo.