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Times Higher Education published today a version of an earlier post on this blog, Why should a postman pay for your university education?.

Although the submtted version was within length, it got shortened and, worse, a bit garbled in places. I got no chance to check the final version. The penultimate paragraph was not written by me. So here, for the record, is what I sent them.

.We hear a lot about lifelong education, and a good thing too. But we have a government that seems to think socially-useful learning does end at 18. This age is a watershed in official attitudes to education particularly in two areas, religious discrimination and education as a public good.

In 1871 the Universities Tests Act made it illegal for a university to discriminate among applicants on the basis of religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and forced Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham to follow in the footsteps of UCL.  For the last 140 years it has been unimaginable that any university would allow religious discrimination.  In stark contrast, in 2010, religious discrimination (and the accompanying social discrimination) in entry to primary and secondary schools is not only legal, but is actively encouraged by the government. It was a trend that got worse while the ‘reverend’ Tony Blair was prime minister. The minister of education under the new conservative regime promised even more religious schools.  Why the rules should be diametrically opposite when you are under 18 from when you are over 18 is baffling.

It is equally baffling (and perhaps a partial explanation) that universities are not regarded as part of education at all by this government and its immediate predecessors. Universities are governed by the Department of Business, not the Department of Education. Education is not regarded as a continuum, or as a life-long project: it’s something you do at school.

The government has managed the remarkable feat of devising a system for universities in which everybody loses.  It saves the taxpayer little or no money (according to HEPI). It leaves universities worse off.  And it does both of these while tripling the debt incurred by students.  It’s hard to believe that such monumental ineptitude has motives that are other than ideological.  The virtual privatisation of post-18 teaching, particularly of humanities, was a step too far even for Margaret Thatcher.

The only too brief debate on these changes focussed almost entirely on how to repay an enormous debt.  That was the wrong starting point.  The first thing that should have been decided was what sort of university system we want. It is arguable that the honours degree system is quite unsuited to an age when half the population get higher education. A general first degree, at a teaching-only institution, would be much cheaper, and it would be a social leveller.  If that were followed, for those who wanted and merited it, by a properly taught graduate school (as opposed to the present powerpoint-teaching charades), and this was taught by active researchers at research intensive places, the standard of education would be increased.  There might be some problems with such a system, but they were not even discussed before rushing the changes through.

The organisation that should have been at the forefront of fresh thinking, UUK, was paralysed as the elite VCs, all in favour of maximum fees, wrangled with the post-1992 VCs who saw themselves at greater risk. The result was total inaction. They may have been on leadership courses, but they failed to lead.  The elite VCs are now finding that even £9000 will leave them worse off than before.  They really should have thought a bit more about how to adapt to tertiary education for half the population rather than trying to fund things as they are at the moment.

Whatever the system, the question will always arise: why should a postman pay for your university education?  My answer is that they should pay, but not very much. They should pay because, although they may not get any direct benefit themselves, their children certainly may. The fairest, most progressive, tax is income tax. If you are a postman, or indeed a graduate, on a low income, you shouldn’t pay much tax, so you won’t pay much for other people’s university education.

I can see no reason for the sudden change in attitude to, and funding of, education that happens when you reach 18.

I see every reason why kids should be angry. I doubt that we have seen the last of the riots.

I hope not anyway.


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11 Responses to Why does lifelong education stop at 18?

  • stephenemoss says:

    Looks to me as though the comments about VCs are included in the THE version. Can’t agree with the bit about riots, it seems that ‘professional’ trouble makers with no interest in education often infiltrate peaceful protests.

    However, I totally agree with the futility of these changes as a cost-saving measure. Dreadful lack of considered thought by people who should know better, and in the case of the LibDems, betrayal of basic ideological principles.

  • @stephenemoss
    This is what I said last time I was reprimanded about the riots remark. In fact the students that I’ve talked to behaved impeccably, as described in UCL’s Beautiful Occupation.

    Well “more riots” was meant as rhetorical flourish. I wouldn’t myself want to break windows, but neither do I regard breaking windows as a very serious crime. I wouldn’t classify it as violence in any usual meaning of the word.

    It’s too soon yet to allocate blame, but if someone is confined for 7 hours in the cold, with no food, water or toilet facilities (I don’t think that is disputed) it seems to me to be unsurprising that tempers flare.

    To hit someone on the head with a truncheon so hard that he needed 3 hours of brain surgery, seems to me to be violence that is quite incommensurate with breaking windows.

    There is a real dilemma for demonstrators, and it stems from the inadequacy of our mass media. If 50,000 people marched in silence through London, kept well away from Parliament Square, the might get 60 seconds at the end of the TV news, or a paragraph on page 10.

    With the media, it’s a no win situation. If a few windows get broken, it will be front page news, but only the window-breaker. In the last couple of days, TV and newspapers have harped on endlessly about a few broken windows in the Treasury and HRH’s Rolls Royce. There has been very little attention paid to why the kids were so cross, or even to the fate of those in hospital.

  • Paddington says:


    I have to politely disagree on your proposal. I am currently the chair of a Mathematics department at a large university. Teaching our courses is a mixture of research faculty, master’s level instructors and part-time faculty, and graduate students. On average, the best and most innovative teaching is from the researchers.

  • aka_kat says:

    An overlooked issue with fees is the customer/service provider attitude it brings into education i.e. the concept that the customer is always right. Who is going to fail/give a low grade to a student who has paid £27000 for three years education? There are already rumours of grade inflation at universities and the increase of fees in my opinion raises serious questions of how we can maintain standards. This will be damaging to both individual students and society in general.

  • @Paddington
    I’d like to respond, but I don’t know which proposal you don’t agree with.

  • Paddington says:

    David – I am talking about the idea of splitting teaching and research by institution.

    In all reality, seeing the results here in the states, I think that it’s a mistake to have so many go to higher education. All we do is generate degree programs without any real content.

  • Dr Aust says:

    What commonly happens in UK Univs with a medical school is that only the researchers teach advanced lecture courses in the final year of honours (BSc) degrees, which of course are the bits of the course closest to the research literature. But by contrast, in year one (basic grounding, huge lecture groups), one really wants something dubtly different namely someone who can:

    (i) see clearly what the essentials of the topic are and;
    (ii) hold an audience.

    Now, I would agree that (i) is likely well correlated with being (or having been) a researcher… but it is nonetheless not my experience that a very research-focussed person would be the best person to do these kind of lectures – some are, but a fair number aren’t. A mid-career person with a history in research but a lot of teaching experience too would be my pick (see below).

    Biomedical Depts also tend to do a lot of “service” teaching to students of healthcare degrees. This teaching (which is not on research topics) again tends not to be popular with research-focussed people (and they tend not to make terribly popular teachers in it). What such teaching really demands is breadth of knowledge and well developed skill at explaining things, rather than profound understanding in a rather limited specialised area.

    In the UK historically the solution to the above has been that a lot of the “non-specialist” teaching tends to be done by older faculty whose research careers are winding down. But that way you do get these course taught by people with decades of research (and teaching) experience, even if they are now less active researchers.

    The more modern way is to replace those people with the new breed of teaching specialists. This is cheaper, but means the person giving those lectures left active research after, say. 3 postdoc years rather than having stayed in it for much longer. In the UK these “teaching specialists” are often quite good at devising new ways to deliver teaching; the issue tends to be the depth and breadth of their subject-specific knowledge.

  • @Paddington

    The clue to our difference of opinion lies in your second paragraph. I’m all in favour of as many people as possible have some sort of higher education. But it follows that the can’t all be taught by first class researchers, or even by people who do any research. There simply are not enough researchers to do that.

    Furthermore, as Dr Aust points out, researchers are, necessarily, usually very focussed on a narrow area. I find single ion channels fascinating, but there is a limit to what undergraduates need to know about them. Even the rather small amount that our third year students got became very difficult to give when faced with a class of 90. most of whom had already decided that they didn’t want to go further in science (quite rightly because there aren’t many jobs in science now). It is really the sort of topic that would be much better taught as part of a proper graduate school/taught masters (as in USA) to a much smaller group of highly motivated students.

    The problem is that we are trying (and, i think, failing) to use a system that was devised for 10% of the population in an age when 45% get some sort of higher education/ It doesn’t work, but our “leaders” have done nothing about it. No wonder I cringe when i hear the word “leader”.

  • Paddington says:


    I am still not convinced. You have a real point (the 10% vs 45%). However, based on the actual placement processes and success rates that we see, many do not get anything but debt from that experience.

    As for research specialities, perhaps it’s a little easier in mathematics, where even high-level work uses the material that we teach to freshmen.

  • @Paddington

    Well until our conservative government came along (I include Tony Blair) the debt was nothing like as big here as it it is in the USA.

    I’m not sure either whether you can judge that a person got nothing from higher education by the job they go into at the end.

    On one hand the government say we must live by our skills, while at the same time making it massively more expensive to get those skills. And it won’t even save anything for the taxpayer. I call that incompetence, or perhaps ideology.

  • Paddington says:

    David – I am referring to the many students that we pump out who apparently haven’t learnt anything at all, not to what jobs they do. In addition, there are far too many disciplines which appear to foster opinion over fact. In some ways, it’s so much easier in the sciences.

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