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Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Cultural dis-integration

I was reminded of all the perplexing difficulties of  cultural integration this morning. The Today programme was doing some vox pops with the descendants of Yemenis who came to the South Shields area more than 100 years ago. One, interviewed in the pub he managed, told us in a broad Geordie accent that he wasn't a Muslim he was  C of E and that he had voted Leave because too many foreigners were coming over here and getting all the jobs and houses. 

On the face of it this doesn't seem like a great way to sell cultural integration to nervous minorities. Transpose it to Whitechapel in the 1880s. 

 "Don't you worry Mrs Goldberg, I know you've had a dreadful time with those Cossacks but you're quite safe now. I'm sure you'll fit in and before you know it your beautiful daughters will be getting married in the church down the road  to nice English boys and enjoying a lovely bacon sandwich every morning. Nothing to worry about at all."

As Joni Mitchell said:

"Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living every day."

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Echoes of Spring

I'm reading James Lincoln Collier's fantastic The Making of Jazz. Collier is both a musician and a journalist so he  really understands the technicalities and  how to communicate them to those with only a smattering of musical knowledge. If you were to read just one book about jazz history this would be the one I recommend. And the great thing is that courtesy of YouTube you can these days instantly find and listen to the music he is talking about. Like Echoes of Spring, a marvelous synthesis of Harlem stride and European art music  written by Willie "the Lion" Smith and first recorded in 1939. We can watch him performing it at almost 70 years of age in Berlin in 1964 (you can ignore the first 25 seconds where he messes around with Ain't Misbehavin').

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Social Class Origin and Assortative Mating in Britain, 1949–2010

The latest Henz & Mills production is out in Sociology's OnlineFirst section. By my count it is 78 in the queue for the print version which means it's unlikely to be physically hitting your shelves until February 2019 at the earliest. Makes you wonder how long this antediluvian technology can last.

For anyone that cares the abstract is  self-explanatory:

This article examines trends in assortative mating in Britain over the last 60 years. Assortative mating is the tendency for like to form a conjugal partnership with like. Our focus is on the association between the social class origins of the partners. The propensity towards assortative mating is taken as an index of the openness of society which we regard as a macro level aspect of social inequality. There is some evidence that the propensity for partners to come from similar class backgrounds declined during the 1960s. Thereafter, there was a period of 40 years of remarkable stability during which the propensity towards assortative mating fluctuated trendlessly within quite narrow limits. This picture of stability over time in social openness parallels the well-established facts about intergenerational social class mobility in Britain.

How sure are we about the things we think we know?

The latest issue of the British Journal of Sociology has some interesting content, well worth reading. My attention was caught by a piece by Paul Wakeling & Daniel Laurison called 'Are postgraduate qualifications the 'new frontier of social mobility' in which they advance the entirely plausible argument that obtaining more than an u/g degree is an important gateway to occupational success and that social class background has something to do with the likelihood that you will obtain a p/g certificate. This is not an absurd argument and it certainly fits the anecdotal evidence I have to hand. It's good that somebody has tried to look at this in a more systematic way.

Being a Devil in the detail sort of person though I was struck by one of their tables (Table 2 for those that can get behind the paywall). This gives, among other things, for both sexes and for  10 year birth cohorts the percentage obtaining at least an undergraduate degree. Naturally I was interested in my own birth cohort, which in 2014 - the year the data pertain to - was the 53 to 62 year olds. 

According to Wakeling & Laurison in that cohort 22% of  UK women & 25% of UK men had at least an u/g degree (the standard error for both figures is less than 1%). That brought me up sharp. Can this really be true? It certainly doesn't chime with my subjective experience. A back of the fag packet calculation suggested to me that in 1979 about 6% of my own school cohort transitioned at age 18 into some form of higher education (university, polytechnic or degree awarding college of higher education). Now one should be very wary of generalizing from one's personal experience and my secondary school was not noted for its academic prowess, but could my experience have been so atypical?

That sent me off in search of some facts. Now the cohort aged 53-62 in 2014 were born  between 1952 and 1961 and would have first had the opportunity to enter university (at least an English and Welsh university) between 1970 and 1979. Single year cohort specific participation rates are difficult to come by and for various reasons are subject to a good bit of approximation. The best source I could quickly find was the 1997 Dearing Report which, for good or ill, set the course on which UK HE has since been travelling. If there is an authoritative source this is it. Dearing in Table 1.1 gives the following HE participation rates for 'the standard 18 year old cohort': 1970  8% and 1980 12%.  Let's assume these numbers are broadly accurate. How can we reconcile them with the numbers that Wakeling & Laurison report for the same cohorts in 2014? The LFS numbers they rely on are roughly  twice as large. This is a truly massive difference.

There are a number of possibilities. Let's start with the least likely. It could be that net migration massively favours graduates over non graduates. Perhaps we import smart people and export the less educationally accomplished.  There could be something in this but it is unlikely to account for a difference of this order of magnitude.

Much more likely is that a proportion of the 18 year old cohort enters higher education later on in life. They take Open University courses, get sponsored by their employer or return to education after having children. This is plausible, in fact it is more or less certain that the Dearing numbers must be a lower bound.  But can it be true that something like this doubled the proportion of graduates in a birth cohort? If it did then this is a truly big story and we should be hearing much more about the success of the UK's 'alternative routes'. But again I'm sceptical. Fantastic as the OU and access courses are I just don't believe they doubled the proportion of a birth cohort with a university degree.

So have Wakeling & Laurison got it wrong? No, or not entirely. However their numbers are, I think, not quite what they seem. It's easy to go to the 2014 Labour Force Surveys (their source) and look at the numbers oneself.  The LFS contains a number of sources of information on 'university degrees'.  For example the variable  QUAL_1 tells us whether a respondent has a 'Degree level qualification including foundation degrees, graduate membership of a professional institute, PGCE, or higher'. If we look at the cohort specific rates of obtaining this level of qualification it matches pretty closely Wakeling & Laurison's numbers.

QUAL_1 is a very generous definition of what counts as an undergraduate degree. Foundation level degrees are emphatically not Bachelor levels degrees. They are, by design vocational and offered by all sorts of providers including McDonalds (I'm not joking). The requirements for graduate membership of a professional institute are  rather flexible and it is entirely possible for someone to obtain such an honour without ever darkening the doors of an higher education institution. 

It also worries me that this indicator is likely to be misleading when applied to a historical sequence of birth cohorts. When I left school in 1979  common destinations were nursing training or a non degree level training course for primary school teaching. You didn't need a degree to enter either of these professions. Now things have changed and nursing and teaching are all graduate  professions. I wonder how the LFS deals with this? Is a nursing qualification acquired in 1981 retrospectively awarded degree level status?

Fortunately there are other indicators in the LFS that more reliably establish whether someone has obtained a genuine u/g degree. DEGCLS7 for instance records the class of degree awarded and on the assumption that 'Does not apply' indicates that the respondent doesn't have an u/g degree this gives an estimate of 18% for the 1961 birth cohort. This still looks high to me, but it moves the number in the right direction. Other indicators give roughly similar numbers.

That then leaves us with the et alors? It's possible that overestimating the proportion with an  u/g doesn't do much damage to Wakeling & Laurison's argument. It's also possible that it muddies the interpretation of the social class background coefficients.  Part of the argument relies on conditioning on holding an undergraduate degree and then showing that there are still differences in the likelihood of acquiring a postgraduate qualification or a higher social class position  by social class background. If the selected subset of apparent u/g  holders actually contains a high proportion of people who don't have a genuine u/g degree and these latter are more likely to be people of working class origin then the disadvantage this reveals is not about transiting from an u/g to a p/g degree but about obtaining entry to a university in the first place.

As I said at the beginning. The Devil is in the details.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Oxford BusTravel and Social Dysfunctionality

Sometimes one is just left speechless. 

My daughter starts secondary school later this week. She's been going to a primary about 3 kilometers from where we live and her new school is only slightly further away. Up to now we have been lazy and like  a large proportion of Oxford's middle class parents we've done a school run twice a day since she was in kindergarten. For all sorts of reasons this is a bad idea and should be discouraged, but for us it was the least worst time efficient way of doing things.  I can live with the guilt.  

But now the time has come, we thought, for DD to go to school on the bus either on her own or with other local kids who are heading in the same direction. It's not perfect - the lack of a direct South-North route means either a change in the city centre or a bracing walk for the first part of the journey, but hey  it's good for children to get exercise right?

This should be a breeze I thought. We spend a fair amount of time in London, so we know all about the capital's transport policy for children. Children can get their own Oyster card when they are 11 and with that they travel for free on the buses and trams and for half-price on the tube and overground. It's easy to register for it & the registration system even accepted DD's German passport number. You can top it up for them at lots of convenient places and when the child uses it it takes half the adult fare. What could be simpler? It's also easy for the bus driver to see or rather hear if the card is being abused. It's not unknown for naughty adults to try and get away with using a child card but the clever Oyster people have thought of that. The yellow card reader on the bus beeps in a different way when a child and an adult card are presented to it so the driver can see if someone is trying to pull a fast one.

Now Transport for London treats children (or rather their parents) generously. There can be no argument about that. London government has the sense to see that having a relatively cheap (as these things go) and integrated public transport system is the best way to stop gridlock on the roads and the inhabitants from asphyxiating in a smog of diesel particles. Discouraging the school run by making public transport easy to use and pay for is part of that  very sensible strategy.

Now let's turn to paying for bus travel in Oxford. Unlike in London one option is always available: you can pay in cash. In principle I suppose this is a good thing, but there is a downside where children are concerned.  Money is easy to lose and it is easy to steal. These are relatively minor irritations. A greater irritation is having to have a ready supply of change every morning to dole out.

It's really so much easier to give DD a prepaid card. What could be simpler? When I went by bus to school in Coventry 45 years ago we already had a  primitive prepaid system. You bought a card valid for a certain number of trips (different colours for adults and children) and you stamped them on a machine when you got onto the bus. Many public transport systems in the world seem to get by with that sort of system: compostez votre billet! In Coventry you even got a further reduction for giving them your money up front  -12 trips for the price of 10. Those were the  halcyon days of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive.

Luckily Oxford also has a prepaid smart card system. It's called The Key and the Oxford Bus company (one of the two major operators in the city - just to  spice things up a bit there are also a few minor operators) has a nice web page aimed at the parents of schoolkids explaining all the great deals you can get. Hell, it's called 'Back to School!' and it says; "Young people are entitled to a number of great discounts when travelling with Oxford Bus Company." Which is true, though these deals are not necessarily  advantageous in the sense of saving you money if all you want to do is travel back and forth to school five days per week.

We looked carefully at the various deals on offer and every single one of them turned out to be more expensive than paying cash for a half-price return ticket on a day by day basis if you only want to use it 5 days per week (ie the length of the normal school week). Bizarrely this was even true if you just bought 12 trips, which turned out to be more expensive by 10 pence than paying for 6 returns with cash. That's pretty crap I thought, but we were prepared to bite the bullet for the sake of the convenience and the ability to top up the card online.

OK so after doing our research the next thing was to get a Key card for DD. I noticed that if you register for it online it's free, but if you actually go to the Travel Shop in Gloucester Green it costs you £5.  Why should I pay £5 to be served by an actual person? So I began the process of registering online. All went well until I pressed the register button. The system detected that though I had given my daughter's details I had used my own email address and that address was linked to my own Key card. Apparently you can't have multiple cards linked to the same account (an advantage of London's Oyster system is that it recognizes that adults pay for children's travel and it allows you to link parents' and children's' cards together). Oh I thought, your  company does not need my 11 year old daughter's email address: it really doesn't. I'm the responsible adult, if you want to communicate with her, you can talk to me. So off I went to buy a card from an actual person & pay £5 for the privilege.

So here is what happened. I want to stress that the person I talked to was perfectly pleasant and did their best to be helpful. It was obvious that - as far as children's fares are concerned - they were  obviously aware that they are being tasked by the management with selling a lemon. I would like to think that they were a little embarrassed.  Undoubtedly they were scrupulously honest.

The conversation went like this:

ME: Hi, I want to buy a Key card for my daughter to use to go to school.

ASSISTANT: [Slight look of incredulity] Normally we require some form of identification for a child card...

ME: What form of identification does an 11 year old normally have?

ASSISTANT: I'll let you off this time...

ME: But what form of identification is normally required?

ASSISTANT: And when they use it [I assume we are now talking about the Key card] they  should have a copy of their passport photo page on their smart phone to prove their age.

ME: But she's only 11! [Thinking  is it now normal for all 11 year old children to take a smart phone to school? What will the average Oxford bus driver make of a photo of her German passport? What do children who don't have a passport do?]

ASSISTANT: [Long explanation about the amount of wicked fraud that goes on]

ME: But can't the driver tell when someone is too old to be using a child's card? [thinking about the clever Oyster beeping]

ASSISTANT:  [Further explanation that the card might get stolen and fraudulently used by someone else and so forth].

ME: OK. [Thinking: well we are getting somewhere at least he is giving me a break and not requiring I produce the ID here. Now is not the time to point out that the whole point of the Key card is that it can be cancelled immediately if it is stolen & there is an incentive to report a card stolen because you can transfer the balance to a new card].

ASSISTANT: What kind of card did you have in mind?

ME: [Luckily I've done my homework] Just a Cityzone card with 12 prepaid trips. None of them save me any money...

ASSISTANT: Well you have the convenience...and which route?

ME: Just the number X from the city centre.

ASSISTANT: Oh, only half of the number Xs are operated by the Oxford Bus Company, the rest are operated by Stagecoach so if she wants to get on any X  the Cityzone won't work because it isn't valid on Stagecoach.

ME:  I see.  [Beginning to lose the will to live and anticipating where this is going]

ASSISTANT: To be totally honest you would be better off giving her the cash.

ME. Thanks for your help.

So Oxford Bus Company. Your advertising says:

Back to School! Young people are entitled to a number of great discounts when travelling with Oxford Bus Company.

That IMHO is  bullshit.

Friday, 7 July 2017

University Fees

I recommend this piece by Rob Ford on paying for higher education through student fees. 

One of the curious aspects of the current discussion of whether or not graduates should pay for the university education they have received (someone has to pay) is that the original thinking behind the current fee and loan system had very little to do with considerations of equity and redistribution. It was meant to solve a very practical problem: British universities were skint.  Opening the door to more undergraduates (which I assume most people agree was a good thing) could not be achieved under the existing funding arrangements without accepting an Italian or German style mass system in which all who are qualified can come but there are no guarantees there will be a seat  in the lecture theatre, or in some cases even a lecture theatre.

Nobody wanted or was advocating the Lidl version of higher education and it was clear that the Treasury would not be sending extra money in the direction of higher education. Anyone who knows anything about the way departmental negotiations with the Treasury  work  recognizes that when it comes to divvying out the cash, higher education is a very low priority. The clue is in the fact that the Minister of State for Higher Education does not sit in the cabinet. We might wish the world was different, but politics is about dealing with it as it is.

So, if universities were to expand they needed money immediately and if that money was not going to come from the Treasury the only place it could come from was the consumers. If they took out loans then the Treasury was happy to give universities the money up front and sell off the debt. 

As it happens there are also redistributive arguments for graduates paying what is in effect a graduate tax, tempered by debt forgiveness for low earners. There is also a case for financial aid for students from the very poorest backgrounds. But redistribution was not really what the current fee system was about.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Getting your tables right

It's that time of year when MA/MSc student minds turn to dissertation writing. In my neck of the woods that frequently involves communicating some numerical information to the reader. As I explain annually, at length, to anyone that cares to ask me, this is all about putting the needs of the reader first and downsizing  one's own egotistical tendencies. 

Tables that look like pieces of modern art are obstacles to understanding and demonstrate nothing more  than  a complete lack of thought by the person who constructed them. It's all about craftsmanship really, and if you can't be bothered with craftsmanship, then personally I don't feel terribly motivated to pay much attention to whatever it is you have to say. Which is possibly a pity, because what you have to say might be important. It isn't rocket science, it's just about caring enough to take a little trouble. Think of it as reciprocity. If you go to the trouble to maximize the possibility that I understand what you are saying, I'll make an effort to do the understanding, and if you don't I won't.

Well now I don't need to go on at length, because someone at Darkhorse Analytics has gone to the trouble to illustrate it  much better than I could (hat tip to Eric Harrison for alerting me to this). Happy table making and I hope you never use a colour fill or a jungle of lines again. By the way, it's all in Tufte, but those books are expensive...