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Showing posts with label NUSI. Show all posts
Showing posts with label NUSI. Show all posts

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Lies, damned lies and stats - UCAS and student fees - and post hoc ergo propter hoc

There are still a few innocent souls out there who believe that such a thing as an objective media report exists, free from all that nasty politics thing. Aye, weel …

The ancient logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc -that because one thing follows another, it was therefore caused by it - has been much in evidence, partly out of the mouths – and the pens – of those stupid enough to believe in it, but mainly from political parties and their media mouthpieces, who find it convenient to adopt the fallacy even when they know it is nonsense.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc abounds in religious thinking, e.g. everybody else’s house fell down in the gales, mine didn’t, therefore God loves me, or alternatively, natural disasters are God’s way of punishing  mankind for homosexuality, etc.

It is also highly evident in much right-wing thought: right-wing American republican presidential candidates seem addicted to it, as they do to fundamentalist religious doctrines. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is in fact primitive thinking that preceded logic and the scientific method – a desperate attempt to explain apparently arbitrary events and avoid their negative consequences, by both propitiating supernatural powers deemed to have caused them and finding some scapegoat believed to have provoked the supernatural power, i.e. a god or gods.


Tuition fees have become a highly political issue since the LibDems abandoned their principles, the Tories underlined the absence of principles in their pernicious creed, and the Labour Party continued their search for their principles, which went missing somewhere in the last generation or so. The SNP, who actually have principles and are prepared to put them into action politically (e.g. Megrahi Release, minimum pricing for alcohol, access to education by ability to learn, not ability to pay, etc.) very definitely regard tuition fees as a political issue, and indeed a defining issue for Scotland.

Politicians of all political hues have been waiting either eagerly or apprehensively for the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UK) interim figures on application for university places, post hoc ergo propter hoc arguments ready to hand, together with a large statistics hammer to render the truth malleable and shape it to their ends.

The Coalition is desperate to justify their decision to increase tuition fees. UK Labour, devoid of any clarity in policy terms, simply wants to attack the Coalition. The scurrying rump of the Coalition parties in Scotland have a dual interest – to support their UK bosses and to attack the SNP. The Scottish Labour Party, perhaps the most confused of all - in their values, their policies and their split allegiance to Westminster and Scotland - will do anything to serve their only real allegiance, which is to their careers and the Westminster gravy train.

And so to the reports today -

The UCAS report costs money to access, so I have no access to the original figures – the interim report. (If anyone can point me to a free version of it, I will be obliged.)

My first intimation was the following paragraph from Reform Scotland -

Studying at Scottish universities: Figures released by UCAS show overall applications to Scottish universities rose by 0.8 per cent in December compared with the same time last year.  The rise includes a 0.1 per cent increase from Scottish students, a 7.6 per cent increase in applications from the EU, though applications from the rest of the UK fell.

Reform Scotland went on to refer to press reports, but whether their figures were drawn from the press, or from the original report is unclear. They draw no conclusion from the figures, at least in this summary.

The Courier -Dundee and Tayside - mysteriously reads the UCAS report to mean that the December figures are ‘down only 0.8%’ but comments that it was the best performance in the UK, which it notes was down by 8.3%.

The Telegraph claims the UK figures are ‘down by almost 8%’  and notes that there has been ‘a sharp drop in demand from candidates from mainland Europe who pay the same fees as their British counterparts.’

Note that British. Clearly, the Telegraph either no longer regards Scotland as British, or intends that phrase to mean that in Scotland, the EU candidates pay the same as Scottish students, i.e. nothing. But the Telegraph still reports UCAS insisting that ‘figures showed a late surge in applications as many students take more time over decisions’.

What UCAS actually said was that the mid-December figures did not reflect the likelihood of a late surge by the deadline for most course, January 15th, and that this late surge was already emerging.

The Financial Times is about as objective a print medium as one can find, since, as I observed in a recent blog, “money ain’t funny”., and their hard-eyed readers want the facts, man, not political spin and prejudice.

The FT reaches a conclusion from the figures – that school leavers have not been deterred from applying to university because of higher costs, but older students have. It also notes that the number of British 18-year olds applying for a university place in 2012 had fallen by 2.4%, but that this fall was in line with the demographic decline for people in that age bracket.

The FT also accurately reports the UCAS comment on the likely late surge as the January deadline approaches. It also concludes the previous increases in fees hadn’t affected applications.

THE SCOTTISH PRESS – Herald and Scotsman

Now we come to the gentlemen of the Scottish ‘quality’ press, Latin scholars to man, to whom the post hoc ergo propter hoc argument is often a matter of journalistic necessity when real life and real data tell a politically inconvenient story.

The Herald is in no doubt what the figures say and what the story should be. A large chunk of page 8, under the heading NEWS, a label that sometimes has to be approached with caution when reading the Herald or the Scotsman – a case of caveat emptor or maybe caveat lector. The headline is Fall in applications from rest of UK to Scots universities, with the sub-header Concern as tuition fees look to have had impact on potential students’.

The first two paragraphs give Andrew Denholm’s understanding of the UCAS figures -

“SCOTTISH universities have seen a decline in the number of applications from prospective students from other parts of the UK after moves to charge them higher fees.

“Official figures from Ucas, the universities admissions service, show applications from England, Wales and Northern Ireland have dropped by 5% over the past year from 24,979 to 23,689.”

Note the gentle lead in to post hoc ergo propter hoc – after moves to charge them higher fees.

The third paragraph rather hammers home the sub-agenda -

The decline follows the decision by the Scottish Government to allow universities north of the Border to introduce fees of up to £9000 for students from the rest of the UK (RUK).”

Aye, right, Andrew, we’ve got it, OK …

They quote Mary Senior, Scottish Official of the UCU lecturers’ union, who is worried by the drop, but has no doubts about the cause. (The UCU is not affiliated to the Labour Party. Mary Senior is a former Assistant General Secretary to the STUC.)

It is still concerning that the introduction of significant tuition fees is having an impact in this way,” says Mary confidently. (Watch out for that old post hoc, etc. Mary!)

Have a word with another Mary, Mary – Mary Curnock, UCAS Chief Executive, who says

"Evidence of a late surge as the 15 January deadline approaches is now emerging. Applicants are taking longer to research their choices but the applications flow has speeded up, as these statistics show."

Or Nicola Dandridge, CE of Universities UK, who speaks for vice chancellors and says -

As expected, December saw a significant increase in applications. This suggests that people have been thinking carefully about their choices and are waiting longer to make their decisions. It is very possible that the increase in applications will now continue right up until the 15 January 2012 deadline.”

Or look at the FT report, which noted that applications to Scottish institutions were only down 112, year-on-year, from 14,729 to 14,617.

Mary, however, has an ally in Robin Parker, President of the NUS Scotland, who also confidently claims the decline in English students on fees. No wishy-washy waiting around for January 15th deadlines for Robin – he just knows

But Robin does note that Scottish students heading for English universities “might be put of by the trebling of fees south of the border ..” Now there I think you might just have a point, Robin. I didn’t need a degree to reach that tentative speculation.

The Scotsman, in marked contrast, majors on the late surge - Eleventh-hour rush by Scots to study at ‘home’ universities – and provides a fairly comprehensive report that includes the Mary Curnock comment on the surge. It largely avoid post hoc propter hoc. Every ready with a quote, NUS Robin Parker pops up again, this time to congratulate the Scottish Government for”the right decision by the Scottish Parliament to keep education in Scotland free”, but repeats his Herald post hoc conclusion – “The same can’t be said for students from the rest of the UK, though, as we again see a decline in numbers, due to the imposition of fees and the reckless decision by some Scottish institutions to charge the highest amount in the UK.”

And what does the SNP have to say?

Commenting, SNP MSP and Member of the Education Committee, Marco Biagi MSP said:

“These figures, which now represent a very large proportion of applications – showing a rise in applications to Scottish universities by students from Scotland, in stark contrast to the position south of the Border – are a vindication of the Scottish Government’s policy of no tuition fees.

“We are fortunate that – thanks to the SNP Government – the betrayal of students by the Lib Dems in coalition with the Tories at Westminster does not apply to Scots students studying in Scotland.

“The SNP’s investment in our universities and maintenance of our policy on no tuition fees means that young Scots have free access to some of the best universities in the world – universities that draw applications from around the globe. The English higher education sector by contrast faces an uncertain future, and according to UCAS’s figures have seen a 7% drop in the total number of applications this year.

“Within England there has been a staggering drop of 8.3% of English students applying to study, while in here in Scotland there has in fact been an increase in Scots-domiciled students applying to Scottish universities, as well as an increase overall.

“Its abundantly clear that the Conservative/Lib Dem UK government’s tuition fees are damaging English universities and reducing opportunities for England’s young people.

“The message has clearly got across to Scotland’s young people that the ridiculous and damaging policies of the UK Government don’t apply here, and that they continue to have the opportunity for tuition free education in Scotland’s world class universities.”


Sunday, 24 July 2011

“It’s the nukes, stupid!” - the Herald finally comes clean.

On another Sunday, the 17th of April, in the final stages of the Scottish election campaign, I wrote a piece entitled Oh, what a beautiful morning for Scotland and the hopes of its people!

It ended with the following paragraphs -

The new Sunday Herald thinks Tavish Scott is the big story, then follows with page after page of negativism about the SNP, including a sad little piece on party manifestos by Ian Bell. It does, however, give full coverage to Cardinal O’Brien’s admirable attack on Trident and WMD’s in Scottish waters  while managing to ignore the elephant in the room - the fact that the SNP are the only significant party in Scotland and the UK that is totally opposed to nuclear weapons, WMDs and nuclear power.

The Sunday Herald prefers to present Partick Harvie and his Green Party of two, and CND, - which sadly has been totally ineffectual for half a century in opposing nuclear weapons - as the bulwarks against nuclear power.

Well, as champions of the UK (pro-nuclear) and of Labour (pro nuclear), the Sunday Herald would say that, wouldn’t they? They mustn’t support the only organisation that can actually deliver a nuclear-free Scotland, the SNP - if they get re-elected and ultimately secure an independent Scotland, they will undoubtedly do it.

I have written extensively on the central, but carefully played down nature of the nuclear and defence issues to the independence question. A few from the last year -

Scotland’s First Minister–The Politics Show–and nuclear aspects of independence

The new Scotland - where to from here?

A 2009 view of the nuclear question - vitally relevant to May 5th election

Afghanistan–the futile killing fields

War, the monarchy, the poppy – blood, death and glory?

Scottish Labour and Defence–follow the money

Baron Prescott and Iraq

Religious fundamentalism in the American military

But, lo and behold, The new Herald on Sunday has suddenly wakened up to the realities of nuclear defence policy and Scottish independence - maybe it was that ‘new’ in the title, or perhaps they have just decided to acknowledge the stark reality buried beneath all the highly selective and distorted economic statistics and sentimental pap about Britishness that usually constitutes the anti-independence unionist argument.

An exclusive report by David Leask comes clean about what’s really behind the British Establishment’s hysteria about Scottish independence - to borrow Bill Clinton’s phrase “It’s the economy, stupid!” during his 1992 campaign, - It’s the nukes, stupid!

David Leask nails the dilemma in two paragraphs -

“The break up of the UK - and its military - is a realistic, if far from certain prospect.

Whitehall defence mandarins are slowly realising that a third of the UK land mass - and their entire nuclear deterrent - could be in a foreign country within a decade.

I’m glad the Whitehall defence mandarins - and the New Sunday Herald - have finally caught up with me. Better late than never, guys. 

(George Bernard Shaw once observed that the incompetence of successive British governments and the Civil Service was easily explained by the fact there was simply not a sufficient pool of intelligence among the scions of the British aristocracy and  Establishment to meet the demands of government, so mediocrity and incompetence were the inevitable result of their control of positions of power and influence.)

Next to the Leask article, Trevor Royle, the Herald’s political editor has his say. He is well-equipped to comment - as author of many books on the military, the Scottish military and its history, and from a military family himself, essentially he sees things as a soldier might - objectively and professionally.

But he cannot be wholly objective, because Scottish military tradition matters deeply to him, unlike the cynical politicians who have never served, and make damn sure that their children are never in harms way, but who profit politically and often financially to an obscene degree from sending young people to their deaths, and to bring about the deaths of others, both the innocent and the guilty.

He places the question properly in its historical context, and his final paragraph is the pragmatic view of a historian, and will be the view of the less-blimpish among the senior echelons of the armed forces.

“As states come into being they need to possess their own means of defence. In Scotland’s case that would entail a division of the existing assets, because once the United Kingdom ceases to exist, so too will the armed forces. As those charged with responsibility are beginning to discover, there will be no other option.”

Going back to the Leask article, however, we find that the RUSI - the Royal United Services Institute - “the think tank closest the Britain’s smartest military minds” while appearing to pragmatically accept the likelihood of Scotland’s independence, is not ready to accept the inevitability of its nuclear and military independence, and presumes - and it is an outrageous presumption - to advise the UK to play hardball during negotiations.

David Leask quotes one Mark Lynch as recommending that the UK play hardball, e.g. trading Faslane for not blackballing Scotland’s membership of the EU. Mark Lynch believes that Scotland’s “interest in removing the nuclear threat (!) is far outweighed by its need for membership within the European Union, and thus is likely to accept these conditions.”

Just how Lynch has reached the judgement that this would be acceptable to the Scottish Government negotiators is fascinating. He clearly has reason to believe that his realpolitik will be mirrored  in the minds of Alex Salmond and his senior team, but the question arises if this is informed speculation, or based on more substantial inside knowledge. We must look more closely at Mark Lynch to see what his experience and qualifications are to offer such potentially inflammatory advice to “Britain’s smartest military minds”.

According to his profile, he is a graduate of St. Andrew’s University, an MA with a first-class honours degree in politics, specialising in nationalism and human Rights. No surprise there - St. Andrew’s is not exactly a hotbed of Scottish nationalist politics, and is would not be my first port of call for an objective look at Scotland’s independence. But it would certainly be a reflex choice for “Britain’s smartest military minds”, at least those of them utterly hostile to that independence.

Mark’s thought on Scotland’s independence are set out in his recent publication The Security Implications of Scottish independence, in which he attempts to link Scotland’s independence with dissident republicanism in Northern Ireland, suggesting that it would be an “inspiration” for nationalist movements in the UK and Europe. His use of the word inspiration is pejorative in this context. I quote - “The increasingly violent actions of dissident republican groups in Northern Ireland would be in danger of increasing exponentially in the face of an apparently weakened UK.”

Mark Lynch goes on to the following statement, which is perhaps illustrative of his approach  -

“Indeed, Gerry Adams suggested that an independent Scotland would cause 'seismic shifts' for the future of the UK creating lasting concerns about the stability of the region

Reading this, one might be forgiven for thinking - even “Britain’s smartest military minds” might be forgiven for thinking -   that Gerry Adams “seismic shifts” quote also included a belief that it would cause “lasting concerns about the stability of the region”, but since Mark Lynch quotes his reference for this - Belfast Media - we are able to read the actual report of the remarks.

SNP Leader Alex Salmond has vowed to hold a referendum on Scottish independence, and Mr Adams said the situation there would cause “seismic shifts” for the future of the UK.

Not quite the same thing … Indeed seismic shifts, the movement of tectonic plates, earthquakes, tsunamai, etc. have been the rather debased currency of commentary on the SNP’s astounding victory, usually by aghast unionist commentators since May 6th of this year. Some have even got their earth science metaphors mixed up with baseball, suggesting that right-thinking unionists everywhere, especially in St. Andrew’s, their natural home, should “step up to the tectonic plate” in opposing Scotland’s, a feat that would pose some interesting geological challenges.


I am grateful to the Sunday Herald and to David Leask for getting this sort of thinking up front, where it belongs, in the debate leading to the independence referendum. The issue has been the elephant in the room for too long, but after Liam Fox’s mask dropped during his announcement in the commons of the new defence deployments in Scotland, where he made it abundantly clear that he saw this as one of the prime lines of defence for the continuation of his beloved UK as a political entity, the defence elephant has escaped from the room, and is rampaging about, looking for someone to gore.

I hope that his timely article gives the SNP leadership some cause for thought, because in my view, they need to say much more about the defence plans of the Scottish Government in relation to independence than they have done so far, especially in relation to the nuclear bases.

I am not so naive as to believe that I am capable of thinking political thoughts that Alex Salmond has not already thought - and a dozen for every one of mine. This superb political tactician and statesman, towering head and shoulders above anything Westminster has to offer, must however share his thoughts with his wider support, not just with inner party circles.

I appreciate that he must keep his negotiating powder dry, faced with a widely-dispersed, powerful and unscrupulous unionist opposition, but he and Angus Robertson must reassure those in the party and beyond it who are utterly and totally opposed to the retention of nuclear bases and the nuclear deterrent in an independent Scotland that these are deal-breakers in the independence negotiations.

In the approach to Scotland’s freedom, all thing are not possible.

Some things must not be on the negotiating table, either overtly or implicitly. Many unionists are implacable in their opposition to independence for Scotland. Many nationalists are implacable in their opposition to any compromise on the deterrent or the bases. I am one of them.

Clear the air on this, please, First Minister, and sooner rather than later.