Search topics on this blog

Showing posts with label TheScotsman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label TheScotsman. 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.”


Friday, 19 November 2010

Objective journalism in retreat at the Herald, thriving at the Scotsman

The mysterious turnaround in the Scottish ‘quality’ press – what can be at work?

Even six months ago, if I had commented “almost totally anti-SNP, unionist in instincts, biased in news coverage to another party, mainly lacking in objective journalism, never provides space for nationalist viewpoints” I would have been talking about the Scotsman.

If I had written “Supports one unionist party in editorial comment and biased towards that party in opinion articles, but not anti-SNP, and relatively objective in news reporting, an occasionally presents a nationalist view point”, I would have been talking about the Herald.

Of late, I can virtually reverse these judgements.

With the always honourable exception of its superb Letters Page, the Herald has dragged the proud traditions of objective political journalism into the mire of blatant bias in news coverage and opinion towards Labour and unionism. William Randolph Hearst would be proud of it: Rupert Murdoch and Fox News would be happy to have the Herald in its stable. It provides a regular platform for journalists with links to the Labour Party: it almost never accords a similar platform to the many fine journalists with nationalist views.

Let me make my case from yesterday’s editions of both papers, the day after John Swinney’s budget for challenging times.

The Scotsman headline -

Swinney spreads the pain of £1.2bm cuts

Eddie Barnes Political Editor

For seven paragraphs and some  250 words, Eddie Barnes gave a factual and objective summary of John Swinney’s measures. Only at paragraph eight did the ‘but’ appear, and it began an equally objective account of the opposition and union responses to the cuts, moving to pages four and five and a double page spread. It was headed with an opposition quote in inverted commas -

‘Swinney’s running election campaign, not country’

This was fair enough in the light of the front page headlines: the entire structure of the two-page spread was completely objective news reporting and analysis. There was even a short piece in the right-hand column about internet and blog views.  The detailed objective coverage and analysis went on through to page 11, with various journalists and commentators setting out the arguments for and against one of the most important Scottish budgets in modern times.

This was journalism, not political polemic: it was objective news reporting and comment, with opinion clearly labelled as such when it occurred.

The Herald front page -

The top of the page was given over to a news item about secret talks to take over Rangers football club. That in itself says something about the Herald’s journalistic priorities, but we’ll move swiftly past that, and put it down to Glesca jist bein’ Glesca. (The more sinister interpretation would be the ‘bread and circuses at a time of national crisis’ theory, just in case the Royal Wedding wasn’t enough on its own!)

The headline beneath it was -

Swinney delivers a Budget sidestep

This is a loaded, pejorative statement, straight off the bat. Where the Scotsman delivered an objective news report at a time of national crisis written by one man, political editor Eddie Barnes, the Herald needs a trio - maybe to ensure that any blame is evenly spread – Brian Currie, Robin Dinwoodie and Gerry Braiden.

It leaps straight in with two paragraphs of criticism before it gets anywhere near reporting what the Finance Minister actually said, with phrases like “John Swinney was last night accused of dodging the tough decisions …” and “Opponents accused him of delivering stop-gap policies …”

As any jazz or pop musician will tell you, the introduction matters  - it sets the tone for the piece to follow. (Louis Armstrong’s introduction to West End Blues is regarded as a musical masterpiece in its own right.) This intro certainly set the tone. Six paragraphs are devoted to the criticisms of the Holyrood opposition leaders, and the relentless negativity persists, but with some attempt to actually detail what John Swinney actually said set out in the last few paragraphs. However, in the bottom paragraph, leading us into the page two and three spread, we return to an attack on the budgets measures by the General Secretary of the STUC.

The headline across pages two and three is -

‘20,000 public sector jobs on the line, union warns’

The whole of the page two article beneath it is a list of criticisms, when we still have had no objective summary of what the Finance Minister actually said, nor of the measures proposed, except through the mouths of his carefully selected critics. Three photographs appear of critics, Mary Taylor, Lucy McTernan and Fiona Moriarty.

In a box on page three, we finally get some fact – The Budget in Numbers, as a list. This is quickly offset by an opinion piece, Sketch by Ian Bell, deploying what passes for humour in such pieces, and a token attempt at balance. But its core message was clear – the SNP was playing politics with the Budget, trying to gain electoral popularity ahead of the May 2011 elections. There was a note of fear in this – fear that it might actually work.

If I may offer my version of Ian Bell’s message, it is this -

The SNP Government and John Swinney - in the face of a UK economy destroyed by the Labour Party, and a ConLib Coalition determined to protect the rich and powerful and attack the poor and vulnerable in their attempts to tackle the deficit - have tried to protect the sick, the vulnerable, the pensioners and the low paid from the full weight of draconian cuts to the Scottish Budget made by a coalition of two political parties totally rejected by the Scottish people in May 2010, in favour of the party – Labour – that had spent 13 years destroying their hopes and dreams.

If we remove Ian Bell’s pejorative lead-in to his paragraph on these measures, “Yesterday the plan was to cling on to anything …”, they are, in his words “a council tax freeze, travel for the elderly, the abolition of prescription charges”.

And we may hear the fear in his voice – and in the inner sanctum of the Herald – when he concludes by saying “voters might remember whom to blame and whom to praise.” I hope they do …

There is something rotten in the state of politics and the press in my native city, Glasgow, and there has been for a long time.

The Purcell debacle, the questions over the ALEOs, of links between PR companies, newspapers and local government, the criminal prosecutions, the resignations, and the catastrophic decline in objective reporting in the print media have only been alleviated in part by probing journalism by BBC, by ITV and by the new media of blogging and tweeting.

There is a kind of inchoate panic afflicting the UK unionist Establishment in the midst of its paranoia and confusion over Europe, its criminal and doomed foreign wars, its sleazy, venal, corrupt Parliament, and the results of its economic greed.

That panic is intensified by the ever-present threat that its fading, discredited empire might finally lose one of its last subject territories, Scotland, and that instead of providing cannon fodder for foreign adventures, and being some kind of northern theme park and playground for rich southerners, this proud nation that has punched above its weight intellectually, culturally, scientifically and ethically might regain its confidence, its autonomy and its integrity among the nations of Europe and the world.

It is profoundly sad that the Glasgow Herald and the City of Glasgow seem to be rejecting that future, and seem to be gripped by the same panic.

It is deeply encouraging that The Scotsman seems to be at last recovering its reputation and its journalistic integrity, after losing its way for a time.

Saor Alba!