Derby City Council to stop measuring complaint volumes?

There’s an interesting article in the Derby Telegraph today concerning the city council’s decision to review its service performance indicators and to revise them.  Most organisations periodically review their key performance indicators (indeed, it would be pretty odd if they didn’t) to ensure that they remain sensitive to the needs of their customers (or citizens). However in the case of the city council it appears that, controversially, these changes may include them no longer reporting the absolute number of complaints it receives.

The quotation in the article which made me think a little more deeply about this subject is attributed to Adam Wilkinson, their chief executive. He is reported as having said:

We anticipate the number of complaints will be higher because we have been and are introducing more ways the public can contact us to complain with things.

Measuring the number of complaints has often been one way of understanding how well an organisation is performing. I think Adam Wilkinson is suggesting that electronic methods of communication make it easier to complain. If this is so (and it’s pretty certain that it is), then comparing absolute complaint volumes from year to year makes little sense.

I’m pleased they’re not falling into the trap of trying to treat all communications received that aren’t a direct request for a product or service as a complaint. This was certainly my experience with Barclaycard earlier on this year. My tweet to them saying that I was closing my account in response to their decision to close Egg on Pride Park was treated as a service-related complaint, even though it wasn’t. I wonder if my complaint about their handling of my non-complaint was treated as a complaint – it should have been …

Simply counting the volume of complaints received  is therefore at best a blunt instrument and at worst useless. So I support Adam Wilkinson in his desire to find a better way of judging how well his organisation is performing. I would politely suggest that qualitative as well as quantitative measures are required.

It will be interesting to see how this develops and if this subtlety can be properly communicated. Suggesting that this is an ‘Orwellian’ tactic as one Labour councillor has done is ludicrous. Just because an organisation makes it easier to complain and sees an increase in the total number received doesn’t mean that it’s performing more poorly than it was. Rather,  it’s the quality of the response to complaints received which is the real key to performance improvement.

I’d much rather that this aspect of service delivery was the subject of political debate than one centred solely on misleading numbers.

A headline no-one wanted to see – OU fees to rise to £5,000 in England

Having blogged at the start of May on the subject of  OU fees in the post-2012 environment, I could be forgiven for feeling a little smug that my back of the envelope calculation for 120 credits (points) of £4,965 appears to have been not too far short of the mark. The OU has today announced fees of £5,000 per 120 credits (the equivalent of a full-time year elsewhere) for students in England. Their official press release is available here and precise details of how they will apply the new fees regime has also been published.

While the fees are considerably below what most other institutions will be charging that has always been the case because of the economies of a distance-learning establishment. It is, however, more than a three-fold increase in fees for most modules – so in percentage terms, future OU students have been hit with larger rises than future ‘brick’ university students. Go figure.

However, it’s important to note that different and far less expensive arrangements will apply to future OU students in Wales, Scotland and (possibly) Northern Ireland. Also, if you are currently studying and live in England, transitional fee arrangements will be put in place that will allow you to study until 2017 at roughly the current prices. But read the smallprint – you have to make sure you qualify now and continue to qualify to receive this concession.

So do I feel smug that I appear to have accurately predicted in May what the OU would be charging English students in future? Not at all.

For a ‘hobby’ student like me, there is no way I would have started on an OU degree at these prices. While current students have been protected in a similar way to existing students elsewhere, the OU has of necessity had to raise its fees because of the changes made by the government to University funding. So if the OU is to be successful in the future, it has to hope to attract many more first time students who will be eligible for government tuition fee loans (unlike me, as I already have a first degree). Such students will be needed to replace the backbone of ‘second chance’ and ‘hobby’ students that its core market has consisted of since it was founded. That’s a considerable business risk and I’m willing to bet there has been many frantic and anguished calculations taking place in the offices at Walton Hall over the last few months.

So good luck to the Open University, even though in October it will be goodbye from me as I’ll have finished my degree. I say ‘good luck’ as I really think that the OU will need considerable luck as well as good management in the new environment, but it absolutely deserves to be successful.

Holding the universities to account

OFFA’s announcement on the sanctioned fee levels for English universities from September 2012 seems to have got rather lost in the heat of the red-blooded battles that are raging around all things News International at the moment. And yet, what is happening on University access and funding certainly has far more lasting consequences to the UK than anything that comes out of the permanently strained relationship between politicians and the media.

OFFA suffers at the moment from being a watchdog with no teeth, as well as having little bark when compared to the might of the universities and their cartels. It would have been much better for the government to have given the regulator some support by way of actual powers before the fees regime was changed. As it is, no University has reduced a single fee by way of their intervention for 2012.

But if we look at the situation rationally, it’s probably not fees that are the biggest disincentive to study in the post 2012 world. After all the fees regime is now in effect a tax of 9% on post-graduation earnings above £21,000/year for 30 years.

So if OFFA is going to be genuinely useful in its role of promoting access to disadvantaged groups, it should concentrate not on getting universities to provide fee waivers against the direct cost of tuition, but instead in ensuring they provide bursaries to help with living expenses. I was pleased to hear a spokesperson from Leeds University on the Today programme this morning say that they were giving their students exactly this choice. I would suggest that the choice to take the money now to help with living expenses is the right one for most students. After all, these have to be paid immediately, whereas the tuition fee only needs to be paid back (just like a tax) out of future earnings.

I’m still furious at the way in which the LibDem leadership in parliament has handled the whole issue of HE reform and tuition fees. I’ve nearly quit the party on more than one occasion over it. The damage done will linger for a long time.

To help put a little of the damage right, one thing OFFA (prompted by Simon Hughes I trust) must do is to ensure that money provided to encourage poorer students to go to University is directed to to helping with living expenses while at University, and not on reducing a headline tuition fee that, sadly, few will ever pay back in full.

The HE white paper – mentions of the Open University

I'm still working my way through the HE white paper. Earlier on this morning I noted that I was intrigued by a reference on the BBC News website to idea that "local FE colleges will be able to offer Open University degrees" in future.

Well, the white paper mentions the Open University by name twice. Once in section 3.5, where it talks about the National Student Survey (NSS). It says:

[…] It is noteworthy that three very different types of institution do consistently well in the NSS: the Open University, Buckingham and Oxford and Cambridge. What they share, in very different ways, is a commitment to close contact with students and focus on academic feedback.

It seems somewhat ironic that the OU appears to do better, even though it is a distance learning institution, at managing to have close contact with its students than the vast majority of traditional universities. But as an OU student it's certainly the case that you feel a real attachment to the university. The tutors in particular (at least, the ones I've experienced) are very good. The virtual learning environment and OU forums, although they have definitely taken a step backwards since leaving FirstClass for Moodle (with a huge migration of chat over onto 'unofficial' facebook pages as a substitute for much of what FirstClass used to provide so well) also helps in fostering contact I suppose.

However, I suspect that the real reason the OU does well in the NSS is not the closeness of contact or otherwise, but that 75% of us are over 25 and so are mature students. We know what we're letting ourselves in for (well, mostly!) before we embark on study, so we're likely to be able to make better choices than most students entering universities straight from school. It also means that because we're probably better informed, we're far more likely to be satisfied with our choices.

The second mention is in section 4.29 and perhaps this is where the earlier BBC report comes from. It says:

The aim of any changes would be to create a simpler and more transparent system that allows for greater diversity of provision. This could result in more bodies with taught degree-awarding powers or an extension of the external degree model such as those awarded by the Open University, University of London and the proposed new degree from the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC).

The changes referred to are to the way institutions are granted degree-awarding powers – and the new idea that some institutions may have them withdrawn if they don't come up to scratch, too. There's certainly no overt suggestion of huge new numbers of FE colleges teaching OU courses that I can see, nor does it seem to be suggesting that it would be exclusively OU degrees that they would be able to teach. It looks more like an evolution of what's happening already. And frankly, if you want an OU degree, it's probably easier to do it (and likely to be less expensive, too) directly with the OU.

Why wouldn't you – after all, it's the OU (and not FE colleges awarding OU degrees) that come out so well in the NSS – and supposedly for closeness of contact with their students, too!

Higher Education white paper due out today

I see from the report on the BBC website that the long-awaited HE white paper is finally due out later on today. While most of the comment currently seems to be concerned with the idea of ranking universities according to graduate employment outcomes, I'm intrigued by the idea that "local FE colleges will be able to offer Open University degrees" in future.

I shall resist the temptation to publish what I think about all this until I've had a chance to read the white paper itself.

Update: 28th June, 9.40pm – some first observations: The HE white paper – mentions of the Open University

Silver bullets

We live in a world that demands simple solutions to complex problems.

There's a problem with runaway dads not supporting their children. Simple fix, according to David Cameron – stigmatise them. They're as bad as drunk drivers. Problem solved!

Some employers might be reluctant to take on disabled people. Simple fix, according to another Tory MP – make them work for less than the minimum wage. Problem solved!

There are too many teenage pregnancies. Simple fix, according to Nadine Dorries MP – give girls abstinence lessons in school. Problem solved!

Family relationships are breaking down. Simple fix, accord to John Major, former Conservative Prime Minister. Let's go back to basics. Problem solved!

I include the last point to underline that our longing for silver bullets is not just a phenomenom of 2011. It's also not an exclusively Conservative thing either – I can think of many silver bullets (the national identity database and contact point for example) that Labour politicians promoted in the last parliament too. And I'm sure that the last Liberal government in 19-oh-something had its as well.

So what's my silver bullet to sort out all of the ills of society? Simple. Any politician … No, strike that – anyone at all that suggests a silver bullet remedy to anything should be treated with the sympathy they deserve and then ignored. Problem solved!

Oh. I think I've just fallen into my own heffalump trap.

What the Liberal Democrats should do next

Back in October of last year, before the tuition fees vote, I wrote a rather impassioned email to Nick Clegg, at his invitation, expressing my dismay at the way the party was handling the issue inside the coalition. I didn’t publish my email on the blog at that time (though I did mention that I’d sent it.)

This is (part of) what I wrote:

Dear Nick,

I have been a member of the Liberal Democrats since the party was founded, having originally been a member of the SDP since I was at university in the mid 1980s. While there is some good in the Browne report, particularly the recognition of the validity of part-time study, the overall direction of travel towards university education being funded by those receiving it rather than through general taxation is one that is fundamentally wrong, illiberal and one I have consistently argued against all of my political life.

While I realise that hard choices have to be made because of the sheer mess the last government left the country’s finances in, penalising both individual graduates for having the motivation to want to improve their life chances and the future prosperity of the UK as a whole is the wrong way to go about balancing the budget. In the grand scheme of the public finances, the (supposedly) £3.5bn a year this scheme will save the exchequer is not worth it. Not worth it for the damage it will cause to the future prosperity of this country and definitely not worth the damage being caused to the party …

Your personal pledge at the election was clear Nick – you said you would oppose increases in tuition fees. Let the Tories take the heat for this … after all, it is they who refuse to rule out cancelling a Trident replacement – wasting funding that could so easily be redirected towards funding something that really matters to the future prosperity of our country. Politics is all about choices; supporting the imposition of potentially uncapped or substantially higher university fees for the majority of students is one you should not be taking. Diverting funding from the unnecessary excesses of the defence budget; the waste and inefficiency I see in the NHS or raising general taxation (remember how our “1p on the basic rate of tax” pledge to fund education attracted huge support not so many years ago) is what you should be arguing for.

Although my advice was ignored (and I was definitely wrong to suggest that the changes will save money of the lifetime of the current parliament – they may actually cost the taxpayer more, even if by the sleight of hand so beloved by accountants the figure won’t appear as part of the official government deficit) the delayed publication of the HE white paper should give the parliamentary party another chance to act.

And to me, it seems a far more rational cause to focus on than highlighting what are largely technical changes to the way the NHS is managed. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not a fan of what Andrew Lansley is proposing and there is much that should be done to modify the measures and insist on the proper piloting of new commissioning and delivery methods to see if they improve the way services are delivered. It’s just that whatever is done here, it’s not going to win the party back very many votes

My reasoning is simple. Regardless of the NHS reforms enacted they will be largely transparent to the average voter, as care will still be delivered by the NHS free at the point of need (with the current exceptions of prescription charges, dental care, eye tests and so on.) With tuition fees however, the increased cost is directly met and felt by individual, highly motivated voters. This is so, even if it is a deferred cost and for some a zero cost if they ever fail to earn over the £21,000 threshold in future.

If the party leadership doesn’t listen to what the electorate has told it over the last couple of days, then a return to Labservatism is certain. They need to fix what they have needlessly broken, rather than picking new fights that will do nothing to restore the damage done to the party’s brand created by the broken pledge on tuition fees.


Open University students in limbo over fees until spring 2012

Update: 21st July 2011 – the OU fees for September 2012 onwards have now been published – see this article for details.

The OU has been silent so far on what it intends to charge for its courses post September 2012, and there’s no early end to this silence in sight.

We now know what the majority of  full-time institutions are looking to charge and it’s well above the £7,500 mean that the government worked out its funding calculations on (£8,665.03 at the moment, according to Times Higher Education.) It looks like OFFA are going to have their work cut out over the next few weeks and months in deciding if the programmes these institutions are suggesting will widen participation actually cut the mustard.

However, we don’t know what the OU is planning to charge. One reason for this is because part-time study doesn’t currently fall under the remit of OFFA (apparently, the delayed white paper is due to change that.) So anyone hoping for an announcement soon as to what OU course fees will be post September 2012 is probably going to be disappointed. This blog post on sets out the OU’s position – anyone thinking of OU study as a way of escaping higher fees will have to wait until the spring of next year to find out what the actual fees will be.

Now, in some ways, this may be a good thing. If the OU is able to continue to offer its courses at around a half to two-thirds of what it costs to study full-time at a traditional university, then I think the future for the OU is relatively bright.

At traditional universities, 2011-12 tuition fees for most full-time undergraduate courses will be £3,375.

At the OU, courses have variable charges, but a ‘typical’ 60 credit course looks as if it will be in the £700 to £1,165 range (e.g. DD101, E303 are £700; DD307 is £770 and DD303 is £1,165), excluding undergraduate courses in Law which look to be really poor value at around £2,130 for a 60 credit course such as W201, W300 or W301.

So, the equivalent of a final year psychology degree (DD307 + DD303) is currently £1,935 – just 57.3% of the fees of a traditional university. If the OU is able to hold its fees in this range (and taking the THE average of £8,665.03 as the post September 2012 benchmark), then we should expect the equivalent fee to be around £4,965 (or just under £2,000 for DD307 and just under £3,000 for DD303.)

However, this is all just speculation. What I’ve not factored in is the disproportionately large cut that the OU is likely to suffer in its HEFCE grant allocation compared to many traditional universities. It was, of course, already suffering through the withdrawal of ELQ funding introduced by the last government (which David Willetts opposed in 2008) but is not going to be reversed.

It could also be possible that the OU decides to increase its fees beyond what it strictly needs to provide its current courses. After all, it will need to ensure that the perceived value of an OU degree is maintained in the HE market that the government has created, otherwise students won’t opt for it in the future – a £5,000 a year degree can’t possibly be as good as one costing £9,000 a year, surely? (Note: I might not actually believe that last sentence, but it’s pretty clear that some universities do.)

There are also the unanswered questions of whether OU students will in future be forced into accepting government loans for courses (even if, like me, you don’t want one) and so increase the headline cost of study still further (a loan at RPI+3% is not good value for someone with a good credit rating!); the continuing viability of some existing OU qualifications (for example, there’s still no word on if the social sciences faculty will be able to offer MSc/MA qualifications in the future); whether or not students embarking on (or part way through) study for their OU degree in 2012 will have their fees calculated on the current basis (as will happen for those on full-time courses) or if they’ll have to pay increased fees immediately … the list goes on.

The OU is a great institution. The standard of teaching and course materials has been far higher than almost everything I experienced on my first degree at Warwick University in the mid 1980s. But if you’re hoping simply to avoid higher fees post September 2012 by taking this route – beware. You won’t know the real costs until the spring of next year.

Why I agree with Nick. And Ed, Caroline and Nigel too.

I wasn’t going to write a post on the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum, but given the generally poor way in which both campaigns have explained the choice, I’ve decided to stick my oar in.

You should know that I’m voting for a change to the AV system, but reluctantly. I’d like to see a fully proportional system such as the single transferable vote (STV) within multi-member constituencies but as that’s not on offer, the only decision that needs making on 5th May is whether AV is “better” than the current system. And my logic says that it is and in an important way. Let me explain why.

Under both the current system and AV, if a candidate manages to attract the support of 50% (+ 1 vote) of those who can be bothered to vote (and not spoil their paper), then they’re elected. In a contest where there are only two candidates, the current system of putting an X against your first choice therefore works.

The problem with this is that unlike the 1950 or 1960s, very few (if any) parliamentary contests are fought between two candidates. It’s not unusual for 4,5 or even 6 credible candidates to be fighting a constituency election. Under the current system, if there are 3 candidates, the winner needs just over 33.3% of the vote to be successful. If there are 4, just over 25%. With 5, just over 20%. And so on. So the question you need to ask yourself is:

“Is it fair that someone who can only attract 20-25% of the vote wins as of right?”

I think not.

AV resolves this issue by eliminating the least popular candidate (as expressed in 1st preference votes) from the count and redistributing the votes for them in accordance with the voter’s next available preference until someone has 50% (+ 1 vote) of the valid votes remaining. Voters don’t have to express a second or third preference at all if you really can’t stand anyone else on the ballot paper. But unless you’re a complete (political) party animal, that’s pretty rare these days.

And that’s it. It’s not about giving people more than one vote, just the assurance to the voter that we no longer have to try to second-guess the rest of the electorate and vote “tactically” to ensure that you have a chance of electing a candidate who you have at least some empathy with.

For the Conservatives amongst you: another name for AV is “instant runoff voting”. Runoff voting is what was used to elect David Cameron to the leadership of the Conservative party – in other words, a new round of voting takes place (with the lowest placed candidate excluded) until someone gains 50% (+ 1 vote). AV lets that happen in a way that means that we won’t spend the entire year voting as candidates are eliminated one by one but implements this method more efficiently by allowing the voter to express their preferences so that they can be taken into account, if necessary.

If the Conservative leadership election had been decided in the way that parliamentary elections currently are, then David Davis would have become Conservative leader, not David Cameron. It’s interesting that one of his criticisms of AV is that it is “not British”. What nonsense.

So that’s it. The choice is straightforward on 5th May – do you want to use a system that can potentially (and often does) elect candidates purely on the basis of the biggest minority winning (the current system) or one that guarantees that every winning candidate has a broader base of support if no single candidate manages to collect more than half of the first preference votes – AV?

It’s definitely not about whether you like or dislike Nick Clegg, what your local authority is doing, the coalition, the track record of devolved governments, tuition fees or anything else. If you want to protest about those things, do so in your local or national election or write to your elected representatives. Better still – get involved – whatever your political views.

And for me, that’s what a change to AV (and hopefully to STV in the long run) will promote – a greater plurality of views being able to be heard in British politics.

Lies, damned lies and social mobility statistics

A few days ago, when the government (and Nick Clegg in particular) was launching its  strategy for social mobility, there was a chart used that made me feel a little uneasy. I couldn’t initially put my finger on why that was the case, but it looked as if it supported the argument rather too well. The chart I’m talking about is reproduced below:

A problem of social mobility or regression towards the mean?
A problem of social mobility or regression towards the mean?

It was used to claim that initially better performing children from poorer families fall back compared with less well performing children from richer families as they get older and so justify action on social mobility. Without doubting for a moment that everyone should have equality of opportunity and be encouraged to be successful in life, somehow the chart looked a little bit suspicious to me.

Someone else had spotted a problem with it as well – a researcher from the business school at Warwick University. He pointed out what I’d been struggling towards recognising – it was more likely to be the result of a statistical phenomena known as regression towards the mean, rather than a genuine reflection of reality.

Regression towards the mean happens when you measure the performance of individuals at the extreme ends of two different groups. The most likely explanation for the pattern seen in the chart is that the good performances from both groups were over-estimates of the child’s ability. Over time, it’s therefore likely that a more realistic view of their performance is obtained through repeated testing – and this is never as good as their best performance that they were selected for right at the start of the process.

Similarly, those selected for particularly poor performances may just have been having an off-day (it happens with small children!) Over time, a more realistic view of their performance is also obtained through repeated testing – and this is never as bad as the performance that they were initially selected for.

Now, I have no doubt that the government’s social mobility strategy is needed and that the intentions behind it are honourable. But the misuse of statistics (and probably where no misuse is required) does nothing to further the cause of reform.

I could also argue that this incident provides a neat illustration as to why removing tuition fees and funding undergraduate courses at universities from general taxation to teach the sciences and social sciences should be seen as a priority …

16th April 2011

One further thing occurs to me this morning – how reliable is an assessment of a child’s performance on a test of ability or IQ at 22 months anyway? The methodological issues in undertaking such an assessment must be huge, be more a matter of subjective than objective measures and subject to a whole range of demand characteristics, from the expectations of the parents to the views of the  health worker performing the procedure.