Wednesday, July 21, 2010

No graduate tax in the UK

. . . contra Vince Cable's recent plea. Details here. Will the Lib Dems agree to higher university fees? My guess is yes, but very reluctantly as it may really cost them in the next general election.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ex-MI5 boss says war in Iraq raised terror threat

The BBC has the story here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] Giving evidence to the Iraq inquiry, Baroness Manningham-Buller said the action "radicalised" a generation of young people, including UK citizens. As a result, she said she was not "surprised" that UK nationals were involved in the 7/7 bombings in London. She said she believed the intelligence on Iraq's threat was not "substantial enough" to justify the action.

Baroness Manningham-Buller said she had advised officials a year before the war that the threat posed by Iraq to the UK was "very limited", and she believed that assessment had "turned out to be the right judgement". [. . .] [S]he said the UK's participation in the March 2003 military action "undoubtedly increased" the level of terrorist threat. [. . .] A year after the invasion, she said MI5 was "swamped" by leads about terrorist threats to the UK. [. . .]

[. . .] The ex-MI5 chief said she shared her concerns that the Iraq invasion would increase the UK's exposure to terrorism with the then home secretary David Blunkett but did not "recall" discussing the matter with prime minister Tony Blair. [. . .] A year before the war, the former MI5 chief advised Home Office officials that the direct threat posed by Iraq to the UK was "very limited and containable". In a newly declassified document, published by the inquiry, Baroness Manningham-Buller told the senior civil servant at the Home Office in March 2002 that there was no evidence that Iraq had any involvement in the 9/11 attacks. [. . .]."

What to make of all of this? I think there are a few highlights:

1. The then MI5 chief disagreed with Tony Blair that Iraq posed a real threat . . . and so Blair never met with her before going to war.

2. The pressure to go to war came, not from the 'ground up' via intelligence, but from the 'top down' from Government.

3. The UK is a less safe place because of its involvement in the Iraq War (contra Blair here).

The fallout continues . . .

Monday, July 19, 2010

Why shouldn't a teacher earn more than the Prime Minister?

A terrific op-ed by David Mitchell in The Guardian here. An excerpt:

"[. . .] Who's the richest person in the world?" That's a question I often asked as a small child. Do children ask that because so many of the stories they get read involve gold? Maybe it's peculiar to my generation who were learning our times tables as Thatcher came to power. Or maybe I was an unusually mercenary little shit. I don't think so, though. In the good times, we admire people with money; in the bad, we resent them, but they're always interesting.

I wanted the richest person in the world to be the Queen. It suited my juvenile sense of fairy-tale hierarchy. To a child's mind, a world where a nerdy American in a jumper and glasses or a podgy Saudi in a sheet can outspend the posh lady in the big gold coach wearing the big gold hat has gone mad. [. . .]

[. . .] It's a credit to the children and parents at Mark Elms's school that they still don't want to chop his head off. In general, they seem to think that he's very good at his job and deserves the money. You don't expect primary-school headmasters to be paid that much but he's brilliant and, to borrow a phrase from the private sector, you get what you pay for. But that's not everyone's view. Many are disgusted by the news that, contrary to our expectations, at least one teacher has a high salary.

How deeply depressing. This isn't some risibly job-titled council functionary – a "deputy manager of procurement services", a "bureaucracy maximisation taskforce co-chair" or a "litter tsar", one of those people responsible for all the "waste" we're asked to believe that the previous administration encouraged in direct defiance of its own interests. This guy runs a primary school in a grim area that was as crap as you'd expect when he took it over and has got vastly better under his leadership, to the immense benefit of his hundreds of pupils and their families. Why can't we treat him like the high-flyer his CV proclaims him to be?

I think most people are comfortable with the idea that if you're a brilliant doctor, surgeon or barrister, you'll get quite rich – nearly as rich as a second-rate management consultant or an inept banker. But the fact that we react so differently to a teacher's pay approaching that level gives the lie to our vociferous assertions that we think teaching is an important job. We don't think it's important, we think it's badly paid. And when we discover an instance where it isn't, it makes us angry, not glad. [. . .]

[. . .] Nevertheless, to this government, the private sector is automatically better. To suggest otherwise is heresy. That's why they're restructuring the NHS, in a way that will encourage more private enterprise, three weeks after the Commonwealth Fund declared it the most efficient health service out of the seven it had studied – that's ahead of Germany, Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, all systems with more private sector involvement. The NHS might well be, in terms of the results it delivers with the money it gets, the most efficient health service on earth. And yet the Tories are convinced that hasty and sweeping organisational reforms will make it even more so.

Meanwhile, paying higher salaries to get more able employees is, in their view, a technique that only works in the private sector. They've arbitrarily decided that it's a scandal if any public servant is paid more than the prime minister. But the prime minister's salary has always been incredibly low considering the importance of the job. To most prime ministers, the pay is irrelevant; they don't have much time to spend it and they know they can rake it in with a book deal and a lecture tour as soon as they resign. [. . .]."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Some positive noises on research spend from the UK government

. . . can be found here. Let's hope the interest in research exists beyond "STEM" subjects . . .

Thursday, July 08, 2010

REF to be postponed

. . . for at least an additional year. Full details here. Widely expected, but welcome to have confirmed.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The death of tenure?

Interesting (and depressing) reading from The Chronicle of Higher Education here.

2:1 degree classifications are "in" ... but should they go?

. . . at least with employers. Details from the BBC are here.

In the UK, there are several different degree distinctions. Very roughly speaking (and there are inevitable differences between institutions) they are:

1st class honours (e.g., the best you can get)

2:1 (or 2nd class honours, upper division)

2:2 (or 2nd class honours, lower division)

3rd class honours (e.g., passed all classes or nearly all)

Pass degree (e.g., did not pass all classes).

I propose scrapping degree classifications for several reasons:

1. The wide variability of students within a degree classification. Thus, a student who just misses out on a higher degree classification will have a very different profile of marks from a student who just manages to be awarded a degree classification. Plus, many institutions permit the use of some discretion, perhaps because of personal mitigating circumstances or high achievement in a particular module/course, to award the higher degree classification if just short of it and numerically on a borderline. It is then not unknown for those with an average of 58 or 59 to receive a 2:1 degree (range 60-69%) and thus have the same degree class as someone on a 68%.

2. Make students strive to be the best they can rather than simply meet the 2:1 criteria. Given the importance of the 2:1 and the great difficulty of earning a 1st, many students seem happy enough to be comfortably within the 2:1 range. After all, why work extra hard for mid-range 2:1 marks when, well, it's all a 2:1 any way? (Yes, critics: as a reference, I would regularly note how some students are particularly strong 2:1 students...but still I fear some students may underachieve.)

One solution is something like a grade point average as in the US. I think something like this should be introduced or perhaps more degree classification bands. Either solution would encourage students capable of mid-range or high 2:1 work to go the extra mile as it would be reflected -- not merely on a transcript -- but on their degree class. Plus, it would best distinguish the better students within the current (and too broad) range.

Will any of this happen? I doubt it.

One final reflection. The perceived need of a 2:1 in the above story highlights a further problem: it suggests there is something problematic about a 2:2. This drives me nuts. There are some with a 2:2 I'd choose any day over some with a 1st. Moreover, one of my favourite philosophers all time, Thomas Hill Green, earned a 2:2 at Balliol, College . . . and then hired to lecture. We need a new degree system to better capture where our students are at the end of their studies. Our times are very different from Green's.