Eighteen Percent?

“A recent poll in the UK suggests that just 18 per cent of people think that a university
education is a good preparation for today’s labour market. In response,
Wendy Piatt, speaking for the top universities, rejected this perception
and said that in fact the education was ‘ideal’. If she is right, at the very
least she has a major communications challenge on her hands.”

(p47 “An Avalanche Is Coming“, Pearson/IPPR, 2013)

For anyone reading at Pearson, that thing in the brackets above is called a “citation”. It means that anyone reading this blog post can quickly refer to the sources of information I am referring to. I’d recommend them to you as good academic and journalistic practice.

The “eighteen percent figure” is regularly repeated in presentations linked to the Avalanche report. I remember commenting at the time that the report was badly referenced – alas this poor referencing seems to extend to the slides. It is a good soundbite, but we should always be suspicious of statistical soundbites without sources.

So I turned to google – thinking that Wendy Piatt at the Russell Group probably doesn’t refer to things as “ideal” very often, especially not  in reference to the figure 18.

There are in fact three results for searching “Wendy Piatt ideal 18” on google. The first is a BBC News story about vocational education, published on 28th November 2012. The opening paragraph?

“UK universities should offer more practical and vocational learning, a survey for a think tank suggests. A poll for Policy Exchange found 55% of adults believed too many people studied narrowly academic subjects. Only 18% said universities had the right balance between academic and technical subjects. Dr Wendy Piatt of the Russell Group of universities rejected this saying they were “the ideal learning environment which produces ‘work-ready’ graduates”.

The timescale and Piatt quote fit, but this report suggests that 18% of the surveyed adults felt that Universities had the right balance between academic and technical subjects. Which is a fair opinion, I suppose. But is emphatically NOT the same thing as saying 18 per cent of people think that a university education is a good preparation for today’s labour market

But let’s be fair, maybe the underlying work supports the  inference that Sir Michael Barber draws. The survey was carried out by the fairly reputable YouGov for the less reputable right-wing Policy Exchange thinktank (seriously, it was founded by Michael Gove for godsake…) in support of a report called “Technical Matters“, published by Policy Exchange on 21 January 2013. Page 16 deals with the poll:

“Polling carried out for this report indicated that …55% of people agreed that “Too many young people in Britain study academic subjects at university, we need more people to study for practical and technical qualifications”, with 8% indicating that too many people study practical qualifications, and 18% indicating that the balance was about right”

So the same issue remains. Even if you wanted to cite a figure suggesting that not many people felt that universities are good preparation for the labour market – and were prepared to overlook the issue that studying practical qualifications (whatever they might be) might not be a good preparation for the labour market – you would use either 26% (the % of the sample that felt that there were enough or too many practical qualifications) or 45% (the % of people who did not say that there were too many young people studying academic courses).

I know the second one is a bit dodgy, but it is such a bad question – containing two separate propositions, the second not leading directly from the first – that to be honest you might as well.

But YouGov did the poll, and they are fairly solid statistically. Even though they were co-founded by Michael “Belize” Ashcroft. Let’s look at the source data. The note in the “Technical Matters” report (note 45, note fans) says:

“Yougov polling for Policy Exchange. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from
YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,624 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 25th – 26th November 2012. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).”

And YouGov publish the majority of their results in an online archive. Searchable by month and year.

But alas, amongst the important polls about time travel and Nadine Dorries, results of this survey are nowhere to be seen. Neither have Policy Exchange published them – I checked.

So, this headline assertion by Pearson/IPPR is

  • uncited
  • seemingly based on a BBC News Story about a Policy Exchange commissioned YouGov poll, for which full results are not available
  • is not backed up by what we do know about the poll.

Well played, chaps.

2 thoughts on “Eighteen Percent?”

  1. Good digging – as you say the 45% figure would seem the more suitable one to back up the claim. So what this reveals is the implicit (or explicit) bias in their report – they wanted to tell a particular story and were going to bend whatever stats they could to make it fit. In this they’re clever – most people don’t do the digging and so it just repeats itself in presentation after presentation. Who cares if it’s true?

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