Friday 17 February 2017
We know what's best for you: politicians vs. experts
I regard politicians as a much-maligned group. The job is not, after all, particularly well paid, when you consider the hours that they usually put in, the level of scrutiny they are subjected to, and the high-stakes issues they must grapple with. I therefore start with the assumption that most of them go into politics because they feel strongly about social or economic issues and want to make a difference. Although being a politician gives you some status, it also inevitably means you will be subjected to abuse or worse. The murder of Jo Cox led to a brief lull in the hostilities, but it's resumed with a vengeance as politicians continue to grapple with issues that divide the nation and that people feel strongly about. It seems inevitable, then, that anyone who stays the course must have the hide of a rhinoceros, and so by a process of self-selection, politicians are a relatively tough-minded lot.
I fear, though, that in recent years, as the divisions between parties have become more extreme, so have the characteristics of politicians. One can admire someone who sticks to their principles in the face of hostile criticism; but what we now have are politicians who are stubborn to the point of pig-headedness, and simply won't listen to evidence or rational argument. So loath are they to appear wavering, that they dismiss the views of experts.
This was most famously demonstrated by the previous justice secretary, Michael Gove, who, when asked if any economists backed Brexit, replied "people in this country have had enough of experts". This position is continued by Theresa May as she goes forth in the quest for a Hard Brexit.
Then we have the case of the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, who has repeatedly ignored expert opinion on the changes he has introduced to produce a 'seven-day NHS'. The evidence he cited for the need for the change was misrepresented, according to the authors of the report, who were unhappy with how their study was being used. The specific plans Hunt proposed were described as 'unfunded, undefined and wholly unrealistic' by the British Medical Association, yet he pressed on.
At a time when the NHS is facing staff shortages, and as Brexit threatens to reduce the number of hospital staff from the EU, he has introduced measures that have led to demoralisation of junior doctors. This week he unveiled a new rota system that has a mix of day and night shifts that had doctors, including experts in sleep, up in arms. It was suggested that this kind of rota would not be allowed in the aviation industry, and is likely to put the health of doctors as well as patients at risk.
A third example comes from academia, where Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, steadfastly refuses to listen to any criticisms of his Higher Education and Research Bill, either from academics or from the House of Lords. Just as with Hunt and the NHS, he starts from fallacious premises – the idea that teaching is often poor, and that students and employers are dissatisfied – and then proceeds to introduce measures that are designed to fix the apparent problem, but which are more likely to damage a Higher Education system which, as he notes, is currently the envy of the world. The use of the National Student Survey as a metric for teaching excellence has come under particularly sharp attack – not just because of poor validity, but also because the distribution of scores make it unsuited for creating any kind of league table: a point that has been stressed by the Royal Statistical Society, the Office for National Statistics, and most recently by Lord Lipsey, joint chair of the All Party Statistics Group.
Johnson's unwillingness to engage with the criticism was discussed recently at the Annual General Meeting of the Council for Defence of British Universities (where Martin Wolf gave a dazzling critique of the Higher Education and Research Bill from an expert economics perspective). Lord Melvyn Bragg said that in years of attending the House of Lords he had never come across such resistance to advice. I asked whether anyone could explain why Johnson was so obdurate. After all, he is presumably a highly intelligent man, educated at one of our top Universities. It's clear that he is ideologically committed to a market in higher education, but presumably he doesn't want to see the UK's international reputation downgraded, so why doesn't he listen to the kind of criticism put forward in the official response to his plans by Cambridge University? I don't know the answer, but there are two possible reasons that seem plausible to me.
First, those who are in politics seldom seem to understand the daily life of people affected by the Bills they introduce. One senior academic told me that Oxford and Cambridge in particular do themselves a disservice when they invite senior politicians to an annual luxurious college feast, in the hope of gaining some influence. The guest may enjoy the exquisite food and wine, but they go away convinced that all academics are living the high life, and give only the occasional lecture between bouts of indulgence. Any complaints, thus, are seen as those coming from idle dilettantes who are out of touch with the real world and alarmed at the idea they may be required to do serious work. Needless to say, this may have been accurate in the days of Brideshead Revisited, but it could not be further from the truth today – in Higher Education Institutions of every stripe, academics work longer hours than the average worker (though fewer, it must be said, than the hard-pressed doctors).
Second, governments always want to push things through because if they don't, they miss a window of opportunity during their period in power. So there can be a sense of, let's get this up and running and worry about the detail later. That was pretty much the case made by David Willetts when the Bill was debated in the House of Lords:
These are not perfect measures. We are on a journey, and I look forward to these metrics being revised and replaced by superior metrics in the future. They are not as bad as we have heard in some of the caricatures of them, and in my experience, if we wait until we have a perfect indicator and then start using it, we will have a very long wait. If we use the indicators that we have, however imperfect, people then work hard to improve them. That is the spirit with which we should approach the TEF today.
However, that is little comfort to those who might see their University go out of business while the problems are fixed. As Baroness Royall said in response:
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, said that we are embarking on a journey, which indeed we are, but I feel that the car in which we will travel does not yet have all the component parts. I therefore wonder if, when we have concluded all our debates, rather than going full speed ahead into a TEF for everybody who wants to participate, we should have some pilots. In that way the metrics could be amended quite properly before everybody else embarks on the journey with us.
Much has been said about the 'post-truth' age in which we now live, where fake news flourishes and anyone's opinion is as good as anyone else's. If ever there was a need for strong universities as a source of reliable, expert evidence, it is now. Unless academics start to speak out to defend what we have, it is at risk of disappearing.
For more detail of the case against the TEF, see here.