Feb 27 2015

On Labour’s financially illiterate tuition fee proposals

At the height of the tuition fees debacle, I seriously considered leaving the Liberal Democrats. At one time, I even considered joining the Labour Party. Yes, I was that annoyed/frustrated/angry – but it didn’t take too much thinking for me to come to the conclusion that being in the fire would be even worse than staying in a rather warm frying pan.

I passionately believe that higher education needs to be funded in a way that acknowledges the overwhelming public good that comes from having a substantial number of people in our economy who are highly skilled and more importantly, having people around who are able to think critically and innovate.

Access to higher education is a significant driver of social mobility. In the 1980s, I was the first person in my family to attend university. The opportunities provided by my degree have helped me immeasurably. Having a degree has also meant that I’ve paid substantially more in tax over my working life than I would have otherwise done. But that’s the way it should be. As Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it – “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilisation.”

For these reasons, I believe that we need a government which will develop policies for higher education to encourage people of all ages (not just the young) to study. As few barriers as possible should be put in the way of those who wish to take up this opportunity. Financial or social, real or imaginary barriers – it doesn’t matter. Pulling up the drawbridge on higher education betrays individuals by removing opportunity, as well as being economically illiterate.

The current fees system isn’t one that I like. The consequence of  the near trebling of the fee cap has undoubtedly been the catastrophic decline in opportunity for mature and part-time students. Young people may not have been put off higher education, but an important section of the population (part-time study accounted for nearly 40% of all students before the last election) has been. For this reason I still want to see a higher education system funded from a fair, general taxation system – the absolute opposite of what the Conservatives wish to see.

If you accept that you have to get to this goal a step at a time, then the fairest way to achieve it isn’t to make stepwise cuts to the headline tuition fee. That’s simply a political stunt that only helps better off graduates (*). Hardly fair and progressive and is, as Martin Lewis succinctly points out, a financially illiterate policy.

No – the right way, the fair way to get there is to raise the threshold at which repayments start (+), helping poorer graduates first. Which is interestingly enough what the Liberal Democrats have managed to achieve in government against the background of both of the other major parties simply wanting to raise fees as the Browne Report (commissioned by Labour) suggested.

I therefore hope that the Liberal Democrats are going to suggest raising this threshold at a rate above inflation in the 2015 manifesto. It certainly won’t repair the damage of a broken promise from 2010, but the incoherence of Labour’s policy announcement today provides a new opportunity to demonstrate that we care about social justice, even if the other parties don’t.

 

 

(*) I’m pretty sure that this policy announcement won’t help the Labour Party. The electorate isn’t stupid, and you’d have to be really stupid to think that cutting the headline fee was better financially for poorer graduates than raising the repayment threshold.

(+) It’s why the Liberal Democrat policy of raising the personal tax allowance is also so much better than re-introducing a 10% starting tax rate, as Labour have suggested.

 

Feb 26 2015

Drink Levers Morning Glory Coffee

While I was out and about photographing Derby’s bridges a couple of weeks ago, I came across this rather splendid ghost sign opposite St. Helen’s House on King Street.

Levers Morning Glory Coffee

The rest of the sign reads:

 

Tastes as good as it smells

Lodge Lane Derby

 

The heart of Lodge Lane is just a five minute stroll away.

 

Feb 25 2015

Two more months …

With no substantial changes in my blood results this morning to report, I’m on watch and wait for another two months.

This is good news.

No – excellent news – as it means I should get to spend a happy week walking around Monmouth and the surrounding countryside in early April, as well as being able to see the London debut of the Encompass Productions version of Emily’s play, Stasis. Tickets are available for £14 (£10 for concessions) from the White Bear Theatre.

 

Feb 15 2015

Underneath the arches: five of my favourite bridges in Derby

Having been inspired by Mark Pack, Stephen Glenn and Jonathan Calder‘s posts about their five favourite bridges, I’ve also decided to join in with the latest meme that’s sweeping the world of Liberal Democrats who blog(*).

The additional challenge I set myself was to find all five of my bridges within the City of Derby, as that’s home. The photographs were all taken yesterday, so unfortunately the light wasn’t particularly good.

1. The Bridge That Isn’t There

East Street, Derby, 14-02-2015I admit that this is an unusual way to start. It’s a view of East Street and there’s no bridge. But when the buildings on both sides of the street were occupied by the Derby Co-operative Society, there was a walkway between their supermarket on the left hand side to the Central Hall building on the right.

When I was growing up in the late 60s / early 70s I loved this bridge, as crossing it meant that I was about to get my hands on some more Lego. The walkway (albeit closed to the public for many years) certainly survived into the 1990s and possibly later. I’ve found it rather difficult to find photographs of the walkway, but here’s a picture of it taken in 1988.

2. Exeter Bridge

This bridge crosses the Derwent directly into the heart of the city and was on the main route in until the inner ring road was built in the 1970s. It incorporates four commemorative copper plaques to the Derby luminaries Erasmus Darwin, Herbert Spencer, William Hutton and John Lombe – one on each pillar. This is the view of the bridge from the Riverside Gardens, with the newly restored Council House and re-purposed Magistrate’s Court buildings on the left hand side.

Exeter bridge, Derby, 14-02-2015… and this is the fifth copper plaque, marking its re-opening in 1931.

Exeter bridge plaque, Derby, 14-02-2015

3. The Cathedral Green Footbridge

The newest of my five bridges was opened in 2009 and is in the Derwent Valley Mills UNESCO World Heritage site, next to the Silk Mill. It’s a swing bridge, although I’ve never personally witnessed it being opened. The design is striking and the views it provides of All Saints’ Cathedral and the Silk Mill are excellent.

Cathedral Green footbridge and Silk Mill, Derby, 14-02-2015Catherdral Green footbridge, Derby, 14-02-2015

4. St Mary’s Bridge

Also in the World Heritage area is St Mary’s bridge. The current bridge dates from the 18th century, though there has been one on this site for centuries. The most interesting feature of the bridge is the medieval chapel, restored in 1930 and is one of six surviving bridge chapels in England. There’s also an adjoining 17th century chapel house. It’s desperately sad that the design of the inner ring road now makes it impossible to fully appreciate the chapel and house from the outside.

St Mary's Bridge, Derby, 14-02-2015St. Mary's Bridge Chapel, Derby, 14-02-2015

5. Friar Gate Bridge

Built by Andrew Handyside & Co in the 1870s for the Great Northern Railway, the bridge that dominates this Georgian street became redundant in 1967 after the line closed. It’s main claim to fame is that it appears to have been responsible for inspiring the Flanagan and Allen song “Underneath the Arches”. Unfortunately it seems to be in a poor state of repair at the moment, despite the promise made by Derby’s council in 1970 when it was acquired by them for £1.

Firar Gate Birdge, Derby, 14-02-2015

(*) as distinct from being a blogger who writes mainly about the Liberal Democrats!

 

Feb 14 2015

Tired

It’s been a busy week at work. While I’m still fit (according to my last set of blood tests in December), I am starting to feel progressively more tired. This week’s schedule meant that Monday and Tuesday were busy days and also that I wasn’t able to get home until around 1am on Wednesday Thursday.

That would have all been probably all right, but getting up at 6am on Thursday to make sure that I got to a customer meeting on time that morning just about finished me off. I got home at 2pm and went to bed. Even after a long sleep, Friday was difficult (though it was spent in the office catching up and preparing for next week) and I’ve only just started to feel “normal” again this morning. I need to listen to my body a little more closely I think, but it’s been useful to find out where my limits are currently.

I go for my next set of blood tests next week and will see my consultant again on the 25th. At the moment next week also looks busy, but somewhat more manageable than the one that’s just passed.

 

Feb 08 2015

Benchmarking the original Raspberry Pi Model B

Yesterday, I used the FORTRAN double precision Whetstone benchmark to assess the new Raspberry Pi 2. The results are rather impressive.

For the sake of completeness, I spent this morning dusting off my original RPi, installing the same operating system (Raspbian) and compiler (gfortran) to repeat the test.

Double Precision Whetstone Benchmark Results, RPi 1 Model B The result – an average of 150,962 KIPS over 10 runs of 100,000 loops, compared with 276,369 on a single core for the RPi 2. Which on this single, somewhat flawed (albeit interesting) benchmark, makes the RPi 2 around 1.8 times faster than my original model B, or 7.2 times faster across all four cores.

 

Feb 07 2015

Benchmarking the Raspberry Pi 2

When I saw that the Raspberry Pi 2 had been launched earlier on this week, I immediately decided that I had to have one. My original Raspberry Pi had been slowly gathering dust on the study windowsill for a couple of years, largely because my initial enthusiasm for it had waned rather quickly. It was simply too slow and unresponsive for me to be able to do anything very interesting with it.

However, my experience so far with the RPi 2 is making me wonder why I bothered to buy a new PC towards the end of last year. For the princely sum of £29.93 (delivered) from CPC (plus an additional £16 for a 5V, 2.1A power supply – the 700mA phone charger that worked with my original model B simply wasn’t up to the job), it’s more than adequate for programming tasks.

The RPi 2 even runs a web browser sensibly, which is more than I ever really managed to achieve with my first RPi. (Geek note: this post was written on my RPi 2, using the Chromium browser).

But just how good is it? A number of people have been testing its performance by playing old computer games on emulators, but that seemed a little bit too subjective for my tastes.

So instead, I installed a FORTRAN compiler and dug out a copy of the double-precision Whetstone benchmarking program(+). An average of 10 runs over 100,000 loops each (on a single core of the quad-core ARM v7 processor of the RPi 2) gave me a result of 276,369 double Whetstone KIPS (thousands of instructions per second).

Double Precision Whetstone Benchmark Results, RPi 2

It’s only when you dig out the historical results for this benchmark(*) that you start to realise how astounding this performance figure is. For example, the VAX 11/750 that I used for the first time at Warwick University in 1982 delivered around 510 KIPS of performance and was typically shared by two dozen people at once. At particularly busy times you could wait for whole minutes simply for the text editor to start.

The Prime 9955 that was the mainstay of development work when I joined my first company, PAFEC, delivered 3,450 KIPS, according to its 1986 benchmark results. I still have my original contract of employment, which stated that staff who worked on “the computer” were encouraged to adopt some rather unusual working hours. The Silicon Graphics Indigo2, the workstation that everyone wanted to use in 1993 as it was a byword for high performance computing, clocked up a very respectable 90,000 KIPS.

It’s only when you get to the release of Pentium II based PCs in 1998 that you start to see similar performance figures to that of a single core of the RPi 2. And you need at least a Celeron M or Pentium IV based PC from 2003 or 2004 to match the performance across all four cores.

I suppose I really ought to knock the dust off my original RPi and see how it performs with the same code …

Update, 8th February 2015I’ve now repeated the benchmark on my original model B.

(+) The Whetstone benchmark seems particularly appropriate, as like the Raspberry Pi, it was created in the UK.

(*) I’m indebted to Roy Longbottom and his collection of benchmarks for the historical performance information referenced in this post. The documents covering the development of the Whetstone (and other benchmarks) he’s curated are a fascinating glimpse into one aspect of the history of computing over the last 60 years or so.

 

Feb 05 2015

Lifelong learning = political tumbleweed

Having failed to engage any of the five political parties through twitter on the subject of lifelong learning and what their policies might be, the next stage of my quest has led me onto their websites and the search capabilities that they offer.

The first problem I encountered with this approach was that both the Conservative Party and UKIP don’t appear to have this rather important function on their websites. (This is 2015 and not 1995, right?) I can only assume, at least, until their 2015 manifestos are formally published, that they have no policies in this area that they’d like people to be able to find easily.

However, the Liberal Democrats, Green and Labour party websites all have prominent search functions. And all three sites seem to have it delivered by an embedded Google search engine, which probably means that it’s likely to work.

So I thought I’d try half a dozen different search terms that someone interested in policies for lifelong learning might use and see what they turned up. The table shows the search term I used and the number of times it appears in connection with a policy document, consultation or manifesto (I’ve excluded hits on personal biographies and other items that contain the search term).

 

Search Term Liberal Democrats The Labour Party The Green Party
Adult education 0 0 1
Lifelong learning 0 1 5
Mature student 0 0 0
Older student 0 0 0
Open University 0 1 0
ELQ 0 0 0

(Note: I included ELQ – Equivalent or Lower Qualification – as it’s a technical term much-loved by many policymakers. However, it didn’t return any hits.)

At this stage in the process, I therefore (with regret, as Lord Sugar might say when firing an apprentice) added the Liberal Democrats onto the “wait until the 2015 manifesto is published” list too.

The Labour party website turns up the same document for both the lifelong learning and Open University search terms. It’s their 2008 “Partnership in Power – second year consultation document” and so probably doesn’t reflect current policy.

The hits for the Greens turn up an eclectic selection of local election manifestos (from Brent in 2005, Enfield in 2010, Camden in 2010 and London in 2012) plus a 2006 report on all manner of topics from one of their MEPs. These documents are therefore too old, too general, too local or all three of these things to rely on.

My conclusion is that I’m therefore going to have to wait a little longer until the General Election manifestos are published to see definitively what the parties are seeking to attract the lifelong learner vote with in May.

 

Jan 31 2015

A £400 bribe to stop smoking during pregnancy. Whatever next?

Earlier on this week I was involved in a number of good-natured twitter exchanges about the efficacy of financial incentives for smoking cessation in pregnancy (*), or as the Daily Mail rather more sensationally put it, the payment of £400 bribes to help pregnant women stop smoking.

Most of these exchanges centred on the argument that if anyone needed any extra incentive to give up smoking while pregnant, then the woman concerned wasn’t fit to have a child in the first place.

Well quite. But the evidence suggests that pregnancy alone doesn’t appear to be enough motivation to quit in and of itself for a significant minority, with 12% of women in the UK smoking during pregnancy according to a different study undertaken in 2010(+). Leaving aside the health of the mother for the moment, the authors of this study reiterate prior research demonstrating that in the UK:

  • 5,000 miscarriages every year are due to smoking during pregnancy
  • 180 stillbirths are due to smoking due to smoking during pregnancy
  • 113 infant deaths are due to smoking during pregnancy
  • 1/3rd of excess stillbirths in deprived areas are due to smoking during pregnancy

That all adds up to an incredibly depressing amount of additional human suffering and misery, due to a dangerous habit taken up because of personal stupidity / peer pressure / the billions spent by cigarette manufacturers to persuade us to smoke (delete according to your own political biases).

So because the unborn child has no say over the choices their mother makes, I think that it’s a good idea – no – it’s an excellent idea – for research to be carried out into how to further reduce smoking during pregnancy, above and beyond what decades of public health education, taxation and the gradual de-normalisation of smoking has so far managed to achieve.

And that’s precisely what the lurid ‘bribe’ headlines miss – this was a well run, randomised controlled trial (the most rigorous way of determining whether a cause-effect relation exists between treatment and outcome and for assessing the cost effectiveness of a treatment) across a representative sample of 612 volunteers – with 306 of those receiving the incentive. It wasn’t a cash incentive (it was provided as shopping vouchers, presumably by a retailer eager to market their wares with the aim of securing longer-term business) and neither was it given to the participants up-front (so, whatever the payment is, it is definitely not a bribe). The vouchers were earned through the participants demonstrating (though a number of scientific, objective tests) that they had actually managed to stop smoking.

The result of this trial was that 69 (22.5%) of the smokers offered incentives managed to stop smoking, whereas only 26 (8.6%) of those not offered the incentive managed to do so. My own (admittedly crude) extrapolation of that data onto the miscarriage, stillbirth and infant death statistics suggests to me that an additional 13.9% of these could therefore be prevented if it was turned into a national programme – allowing a further 735 unique, precious human beings to experience what it is to live.

And I haven’t even taken account of the positive impact on the mother here too. Nor on the NHS and the taxpayer in general. The study notes that the additional costs of treatment (for mother and child) that the NHS has to fund every year due to smoking during pregnancy is between £20m – £88m, depending on how you count it.

Now, of course there are ethical considerations. The study points these out. We should never be in the business of rewarding bad behaviour that is solely the choice of the individual concerned. However, the behaviour being rewarded is demonstrably a good one – giving up smoking. And in addition to that, I genuinely don’t believe that the ‘choice’ to start smoking is solely down to our own personal agency. Societal conditions (remember peer pressure and the £billions spent by tobacco companies on ensuring cigarettes are available) also play a part in the decision to start.

But if you’re still wavering, consider these facts:

  • No harms were reported, and the incentives offered were acceptable to the participants and healthcare professionals.
  • The longer term cost of the programme per life year gained was £482. The NHS (in general) operates on the basis that a treatment costing £20,000 per life year gained is a cost-effective intervention.
  • Existing interventions aimed at encouraging pregnant women to stop smoking during pregnancy are not highly effective.

So if we believe in basing public policy on evidence based research (and I do), then for me the conclusions of this study and its call for further research to be undertaken must be acted upon, regardless of what the yellow press believes.

 

(*) The report mentioned is published by the British Medical Journal and is free to read. It’s just twelve pages long and well-written.

(+) Health and Social Care Information Centre, Infant feeding survey 2010. Encouragingly, the numbers of UK women smoking during pregnancy have dropped from 17% in 2005 to 12% in 2010, without “the bribe”.

 

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