Thursday, 23 December 2010

Pornography opt-in filter proposal

It looks like the government have made a relatively significant policy announcement before the new year after all so I'll do a quick piece on the so-called opt-in filter proposed to block adolescents from accessing pornography online.

It is very tempting to get stuck into the morals of pornography in general but, in this case, it is largely irrelevant. There's a very simple explanation for why it's irrelevant, such a filter is impossible. Mr Vaizey's reasoning is that, because ISPs (Internet Service Providers) managed to block child pornography, the same is possible with legal pornography.

Firstly, ISPs did not manage it with child pornography, they managed to block most of the sites that offer it but, as is demonstrated whenever the media run across another paedophile, those who are determined to access it still manage to build up hard drives with thousands of images.

Secondly, if the ISPs cannot block all the content when there are only a few thousand sites that broadcast child pornography. How does Mr Vaizey expect them to manage it with the millions of web pages that contain legal pornography? Google estimates that 1.1% of web pages are pornographic (and that was the lowest figure I could find, some estimates go up to 70%). With estimates of the number of web pages ranging from 8 billion to 29.6 billion to hundreds of billions it can be said that, even if the lowest figure is taken, there are likely at least 100 million web pages depicting pornography on the internet.

So, ISPs can't even block all the pornography from a few thousand webpages and they are expected to be able to block at least 100 million? To quote the secretary general (a.k.a. head) of the Association of ISPs (ISPA), it would, at most, "only be effective in preventing inadvertent access".

To be perfectly blunt, adolescents do not access pornography "inadvertently".

For such a filter as this to be effective it would have to either blanket block every website which could possibly be related to pornography (which would also block several hundred million which aren't porn, such as news reports which mention the subject or websites giving advice to adolescents about sexual health and relationships) or only block the most obvious sites which would still leave tens of millions that adolescents could access.

In short, it is not technically possible to create such a filter so this announcement is just like the government's announcement on an immigration 'cap'. It is designed to sound good in the media but has virtually no substance behind it. I can only hope Mr Vaizey realises this because it would be very worrying if, as the minister effectively in charge of the internet (among other things), he didn't understand how it works.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

EMA - The good and the Bad

On the 20th of October this year David Cameron announced that EMA would be scrapped at the end of the academic year 2010/2011. More recently some details of what they propose to replace it with have emerged although these have been more about the general form the new system will take rather than concrete details. Until the details of the new system are announced it would be premature to say that replacing EMA is necessarily a good/bad idea so, in the meantime, a debate of the relative merits and failings of EMA would seem to be a good place to start.
First, an overview: EMA is a weekly payment of £10, £20 or £30 to students staying in education after the age of 16, based on their parents’ income. Students whose parents’ joint income is lower than £30,810 receive £10 a week; £25,521, £20 a week and £20,817, £30 a week. The EMA payments are only made however, if the student attends every lesson. These payments are intended to help students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds access further education.
One of the biggest problems with EMA is the eligibility criteria. A family with 4 children earning £31,000 a year would receive no support whereas a family with a single child earning £25,000 a year would receive £20 a week despite, arguably, the former being more likely to need financial support. Moreover, the measure of parents’ joint outcome doesn’t take into account maintenance payments in the case of separated parents. This has led to the situation where a number of students (indeed, a few who I know myself) are attending very expensive private schools, paid for out of contributions from their divorced parent, and are still in receipt of EMA. In short, the eligibility criteria are not based on the financial situation of the student which has led to the position where a very large number of students are judged as being ‘eligible’ despite being under no financial burden as a result of their education.
According to surveys commissioned by the government and conducted by the NFER (National Foundation for Education Research), only 14% of recipients of EMA said that they wouldn’t have continued in education without the payments. I can say as someone who receives EMA and who knows people who also receive it that this figure doesn’t surprise me, in fact, I would have expected it to be lower than 14%. This is because, for the great majority of recipients (myself included), they don’t need the payments to fund their education. Some students need to buy textbooks and general supplies such as stationery and school bags but these costs don’t come anywhere near £10 a week, let alone £30 a week. As a result, most of the recipients of EMA treat it effectively as pocket money, spending it on clothes or games or mobile phones or whatever else you care to think of. At a time when the nation’s budget is having to make significant cuts in public expenditure, EMA would seem like a scheme that has an awful lot of wastage of funds which could be put to better use elsewhere. EMA costs £560 million a year and so, if you take those 86% of students for whom it doesn’t affect their choice of continuing in education, that’s just more than £480 million that is being wasted.
However, it should also be recognised that some of those 14% of EMA recipients do genuinely need it. In the majority of these cases the main costs incurred are for transport to/from school or college. Anyone who commutes to work on public transport can tell you that transport can easily cost £20 a week or more. However, this affects very few students because most students live relatively close to their chosen school/college. The average travel distance for post-16 students is 1.3 miles, a distance easily walkable. There are a small minority of students who live far enough away from their school or college to have to take public transport and even fewer of those aren’t in a position to pay for it themselves. All of this means that the proportion of all students who face financial barriers to continuing in higher education is very small, no larger than 5% of all students, if that.
On the other hand, just how much is £480 million? It might seem like a lot but let’s put it in context. The education budget is about £70 billion, the 25% cuts in the education budget are still £17.5 billion. So, EMA costs a mere 0.7% of the education budget and a mere 3% of the cuts to the budget, but raises the number of young people continuing in education by about 5% of total student numbers. This would then, seem like a comparatively efficient way of encouraging young people to further their education.
This argument however, misses a very significant point. Attendance and participation are not important in terms of education. What is important is outcomes, if you raise attendance by 5% but if that 5% get straight U’s at the end of their courses then it’s been a waste of time and money. The problem with EMA is that whilst there are some students who genuinely want an education but can’t afford it, there are even more who don’t want an education but see it as a convenient way to make £30 a week for sitting around doing nothing. Of the 14% of recipients who say they wouldn’t be in education if it weren’t for EMA, only a small number actually intended to have an education in the first place. The rest of the 14% are only there for the £30 a week and an awful lot of teachers who have spoken out on the subject have pointed to these students as being generally disruptive, a detrimental influence on those who genuinely want to learn and as creating an extra workload on teachers who are overworked as it is.
I receive £30 a week at the moment and I can categorically say that maybe £2 a week actually goes on my education. Apart from the possibility of £50-£100 at the start of the year for textbooks and supplies, the only cost that students really occur as part of their education is transport to and from school/college and the occasional school trip. It is relatively easy to find out which students incur costs as a result of travel to/from school and even easier to work out how much it costs them. It is harder with textbooks but even if you gave all the students who receive EMA £90 to purchase textbooks at the start of term, that’s only 3 weeks’ worth of EMA which is far cheaper than 33 weeks’ worth under the current system. This way you could make sure that any student who genuinely wants an education doesn’t have to forego it on account of financial burdens but that those who don’t really want one aren’t bribed to take one anyway and just sit around all day being disruptive in class and creating work for teachers in return for their £30 a week.
In summary, EMA, whilst it does help those who genuinely needs it, also spends millions on at least 10 times as many students who don’t need it and encourages some young people who have no intention whatsoever of getting an education to turn up anyway, which has a detrimental effect on those students who genuinely want to learn. So, EMA could almost certainly be done far more efficiently and the government (as long as their replacement system doesn’t miss out those 5% of students who genuinely need financial support) would seem to be doing the best thing in replacing it and whilst I will certainly miss my £30 a week I can’t honestly say losing it is going to impact on my education in any way whatsoever.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Tuition Fees (stats)

This is intended as a supplement to the below article on the changes to the tuition fees system to highlight in a more straightforward way what the changes actually mean for you.


1) living costs will be £6,000 for a student per year
2) CPI will be 2%, wage inflation will be 3%, RPI will be 4% (interest rate on the loan)
3) This is for a graduate taking a 3-year course
4) Every course will charge the maximum £9,000 a year.

ALL of the changes

1) Tuition fees will now be between £6,000 and £9,000 a year. Up from £3,000 a year previously.
2) The threshold for repayments is now £21,000. £6,000 more than it was previously.
3) The threshold will rise with inflation, before it did not.
4) The highest earners will now pay an extra [up to] 3% interest on their debts.
5) ALL debts are written off after 30 years, 5 years more than previously.
6) There will be fee waivers of up to £18,000 for the poorest graduates but this will not be included in the calculations here to avoid complication.
7) (as yet uncomfirmed) you will not be able to pay your fees upfront, you will have to take out a loan and there will be penalties for early repayment.

As you can see, a fair bit more than what you would realise if you only read what the newspapers told you.

The old system

How it works

Under the old system: You would graduate with about £27,000 of debt. You would pay 4% (RPI) interest on that debt. After 25 years any debt left would be written off. You would pay 9% of your income above £15,000 in repayments. The threshold would slowly be eaten away by inflation.

So, if you earnt say £15,000 after graduating, then in the first year you would pay nothing.

In the second year your salary would have gone up by 3% to £15,450 so you would pay £450*9% = £41.
In today's prices that £41 would be equal to £41/1.02 (inflation) = £40.

In the third year your salary would be £15,000*1.03^2 so your repayments would be (£15,000*1.03^2 -£15,000) *0.09 and in today's money it would be worth that amount, divided by 1.02^2.

Therefore, the total amount you would pay before the debt was written off (in today's money, if you were earning £15,000 a year) is:

∑ ((£15,000*1.03^K-£15,000)*0.09/1.02^K) from K=0 to K=24
which is £6,866

for someone earning £21,000 a year (the current median salary) it is:
∑ ((£21,000*1.03^K-£21,000)*0.09/1.02^K) from K=0 to K=24
which is £20,366

So what would I have actually paid?

According to the ONS, 50% of the population earn less than £21,000 (£25,000 for only full-time employees)
only 25% earn more than £32,000 a year
and only 10% earn more than £45,000 a year.

If we take these 3 salaries and plug them into our repayments equation we get the following:

earning £21,000 after university: £20,366 (significantly less than the headline £27,000 of "debt")
earning £32,000 after university: £45,116 (an awful lot more than the headline £27,000 of "debt")
earning £45,000 after university: £31,073 (an awful lot less than the guy earning only £32,000 a year)

The guy on £45,000 pays less because their debt is all paid off after only 11 years. As we can see, the old system resulted in quite expensive degrees for anyone earning above the average salary and also meant that the very well off (those earning £40,000+) actually paid less for their degrees than someone earning only £30,000 a year. I don't think anyone would say that was fair.

The new system

How it works

However, under the new fees system with all the changes outlined above, you would come out of university with £40,000 of "debt", it would be charged inflation of 4% (RPI) plus up to 3% more for higher earners (so the guy on £45,000 a year would pay 7% interest). You would get any debt written off after 30 years and repayments would be 9% above a higher threshold of £21,000 which would be uprated with inflation.

So, if you earnt £21,000 a yar after leaving university. You would pay £0 in the first year

In the second year your salary would have gone up by 3% to £21,630 so you would pay £630*9% = £57. 
In today's prices that £57 would be equal to £38/1.02 (inflation) = £56. 

In the third year your salary would be £21,000*1.03^2 so your repayments would be (£21,000*1.03^2 -£21,000) *0.09 and in today's money it would be worth that amount, divided by 1.02^2.

Therefore, the total amount you would pay before the debt was written off (in today's money, if you were earning £21,000 a year) is:
∑ ((£21,000*1.03^K-£21,000)*0.09/1.02^K) from K=0 to K=29
which is £13,524

So what will I actually pay now that fees have gone up?

Therefore, for a graduate (with £40,000 of "debt" remember):

earning £21,000 a year after university: £13,524 (a hell of a lot less than the £40,000 of "debt")
earning £32,000 a year after university: £43,224 (a bit more than the "debt" but still less than the £45,000 they would have paid under the old system with only £27,000 of "debt")
earning £45,000 a year after university: £51,840 (at that salary the student debt is paid off after 24 years rather than being written off after 30)

Now we come to compare the previous system with the new one.

                                                                  Previous                             Govt. Changes
earning more than 50% of the population:    £20,400                                £13,500
earning more than 75% of the population:    £45,100                                £43,224
earning more than 90% of the population:    £31,100                                £51,800

What we can see here is that you will actually pay LESS for your degree if you earn the same as 80% of the population does. You will ONLY pay more for your degree under the new system if you're in the top 20% of earners. Now, you might still think this is unfair however, as someone who's going to be under the new system, I actually feel better knowing that if I don't quite manage to earn £45,000 a year after university then I will actually pay less for my degree; and to be honest, if I were earning more than £45,000 a year I wouldn't be complaining.

Moreover, when you realise that £18,000 of that debt (from living costs) you would have had to pay whether you were in university or out there earning a living, the "payment" for your degree is actually those figures minus £18,000 which gives us these final tables:

                                                                              Cost of YOUR degree

                                                                  Previous                            Govt. Changes
earning more than 50% of the population:    £2,400                                  £-4,500
earning more than 75% of the population:    £27,100                                £25,224
earning more than 90% of the population:    £13,100                                £33,800

In other words, the maximum amount your degree could possibly cost you is about £35,000 and that's the absolute maximum, and that's over your entire lifetime, that's like what? 2 cars? not really that much when you think about it. Moreover, when you consider that even if you do a degree and it's useless and you're stuck on the average wage for the rest of your life, you will have actually made a profit out of going to University. If you come from a poor background and get the fee waivers worth £18,000 then the profit you could make out of a student loan could conceivably exceed £20,000 even if you have a worthless degree. Therefore, even if your degree is "worthless" in the eyes of employers, you're still not going to be worse off financially for going to University so if like me you're from a pretty poor background, please don't be scared of going to Uni. It's your chance to have a better life and don't let the media scare you into not seizing it.

What you should take away form this is three things.

1) Do not let the media dictate what you think. Newspapers are not there to inform you, they're there to sell themselves, by all means read newspapers, watch news channels, but always ALWAYS do your own research, question the statistics, find out for yourself what the truth is because they will only tell you the bits of the truth they want you to hear. As a general guide, have a look round the think tanks, they do a lot of this kind of thing and will probably be a lot more informative than any newspaper is going to be.

2) Don't be put off going to university. Your degree is only going to have to increase your salary by 5% and it will be worth more than it cost you. Moreover, University is far more valuable than just as a way of earning more money, it's a once in a lifetime experience which you will never have the opportunity to have again. Don't be put off going to university because you're scared about the "lifetime of debt" you keep hearing about. Now that you know the true cost of university (effectively only 3-5% extra income tax for 30 years) you can make an informed decision about if you think it's worth it. If you're worried about the value of your degree, then I would suggest you do a STEM subject (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) because those jobs really are worth a lot of money.

3) You should keep up to date with my blog because I will give you my point of view but I'll also give you the information to make up your own mind. Oh yeah, and don't blindly trust the media (did I mention that already?)

Tuition Fees

The last few weeks have seen a lot of strong reactions nationwide on the issue of the raising of tuition fees and what the new system will do to levels of enrolment, social mobility, the arts and whether this will benefit or harm the country and the economy, both in the short term and the long term.

Firstly I would just like to give a brief overview of the old system and the new one. Under the old system, students paid tuition fees of £3,225 or thereabouts depending on the specific university and course, in England, Northern Ireland and non-Welsh students studying in Wales. Welsh students only had to pay £1,285 per year and Scottish students got free university tuition.

 Students could pay the fees upfront if they wished or they could get a student loan (from the Student Loans Company) with an interest rate of 4.4%. Repayments were at least 9% of your annual income over a threshold of £15,000. So, if you earned a salary of £22,000 the first year after university, you would have paid at least 9% of £7,000 = £630 as a repayment for that year. If you still had the loan outstanding after 25 years then the remainder was written off.

Under the new system, there will be a cap of £9,000 a year. This means that fees won't necessarily rise to £9,000 however, it seems likely that a large number of the top universities intend to do so and many more might as well. The government has said that any university charging more than £6,000 a year will have to take extra measures to provide access to students from poorer backgrounds. What this means is that virtually all universities will likely raise fees to £6,000 a year while some of the more prestigious will raise them further still.

These fees will only apply in England as education is a devolved issue for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland although all 3 have said that in light of these changes they might also raise their fees but this is by no means certain. Unlike the old system, no students will have to pay their fees upfront (part-time students did under the old system) and repayments will be a fixed 9% of your salary above £21,000 per year. Interest will be charged at the rate of inflation (Retail Prices Index) + up to an extra 3% for higher salaries. Any debt outstanding after 30 years will be written off.

So, should students be applauding or, as they have been, hurling abuse at the changes?

Obviously, the size of student debt is going to be far more substantial with debt for a 3-year course likely to top £40,000 (including living costs). This is irrelevant. Very few students ever paid back their loans fully under the old system before they were written off so the increase in debt will only affect those on the highest salaries (who I think we can all agree don't need to worry about paying back their debts anyway). Under the new system you would have to earn an average salary of £45,000 a year for 30 years to pay off your debt (which would mean you were earning more than 90% of the population) so for the vast majority of students the question will be, will I pay less over 30 years than I would have under the old system? The answer is surprisingly straightforward. If your average salary is less than £35,000 you pay less in total under the new system and if you earn more you will pay more.This is because the threshold has been raised to £21,000 rather than the old £15,000 so your yearly repayments are lower. 

DO NOT WORRY ABOUT THE SIZE OF YOUR DEBT BECAUSE THIS DEBT IS NOT DEBT. IT IS EFFECTIVELY A GRADUATE TAX. All your student debt will mean is that you'll pay from 0-5% of your total salary as contributions for 30 years after leaving university and it will then be written off.

The new system, despite how it has been maligned in the press, is actually rather progressive. This is because it means that how much you pay for your degree is based entirely on how much you earn after university rather than how much money you or your parents had before university. In other words, even if you were dirt poor, you could take out a student loan, get a degree and not worry because if you could only get a minimum wage job, you'd pay nothing for your degree, if you got a well-paid job, great,  you'd pay an extra 3-5% in tax but you'd have a decent job and a decent salary and if you got a very well-paid job yes, you'd pay 6-7% in tax but you'd still have a great salary and a far better standard of living than when you were growing up. So, if you're a poor student you can go to university safe in the knowledge that you would only pay for your degree if you could afford to and, even better, those who get the highest salaries will be the ones who pay the most for their degrees, almost certainly the fairest way of implementing any tax. For those who still think the new system is unfair, I would just like to point out that 30% of students will pay less for their degrees under the new system and these will be the ones with the lowest salaries after university, I think it is hard to argue that the poorest paying less isn't progressive.

There are however, 3 problems. Firstly, while the proposals are good, the way they have been portrayed is a damning indictment of this country's media. There has been an enormous focus on "£40,000 of debt" and "tripled fees" with no recognition of the fact that few students will actually pay much of the increase before the debt is written off in 30 years time. This misreporting is certain to discourage poorer students from attending university which will irrevocably harm social mobility because the media prefer bold headlines and shock stories over substance. The massive numbers of young people protesting the rise in fees is ample evidence of the lack of understanding among young people and it is of great detriment to the economic future of this country that poor students will be deterred from university due to a lack of information and advice about what the fees system actually means for them.

There is also, although this is a different but related issue, a problem with the government's proposals to cut the teaching grant to all but the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects. The government intend for the shortfall to be made up in fees however, since students won't pay back most of their fees, the government will end up paying most of the fees anyway so the end result will be a shifting of university funding towards the STEM subjects and away from other subjects. Whilst I recognise that the STEM subjects are the most beneficial to economic growth there are a whole plethora of subjects such as medicine, law, architecture, economics and many others which are also vital to our economy. There are very few subjects that don't aid the economy and those that (arguably) don't often are the ones that contribute most to our culture and whilst I readily welcome an increase in funding for STEM subjects, I think that taking funding away from other subjects is detrimental to the future of our economy and the wealth of culture which makes this country so unique.

The last issue is one of trust. Whilst the new system may be fairer than the old one and whilst it will benefit the poorest graduates and is ultimately more progressive, the Liberal Democrats, each and every one of them, made a campaign pledge not just to not raise fees but to vote against any increase. To go from voting against any increase to tripling fees seems like a betrayal of all the students who voted for them. It is vital to the future of our country that politicians are accountable to the electorate and that they implement what they are elected to do. Politicians must always remember their job is to represent us and so they must be reminded that reneging on promises during the election is not what we elected them to do.

On the other hand, it should be said that perhaps this was the best the lib dems could get. After all, the conservatives wanted unlimited tuition fees so a raise of only £6,000 a year doesn't seem so bad. It should also be noted that perhaps (as in this case) the govt. are actually helping the people who are even now planning more mass protests and so, whilst they may not have implemented the specifics of what they said, the overall effect has been beneficial.

To conclude, welcome the new proposals because they are more progressive than the old ones and, if reported correctly, will encourage social mobility but campaign for the government not to take funding away from non-STEM subjects and think carefully about the liberal democrats, about whether you prefer a government that implements policies it thinks will be damaging because the public insist on it, or a government that does what it thinks is best for the voters, regardless of what the voters think. There is no right answer to that question but it is one everyone liberal democrat voter should be asking themselves and the answer will ultimately determine their future (or lack thereof) as a significant force in uk politics.