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The TES story: an update

November 2, 2015

Yesterday, I wrote a piece which was critical of  the way TES  had reported on a particular piece of research.  Contrasting its approach with that of another paper, I said (emphasis added):

TES readers were not so well-served.  The risk is that its piece will be gratefully grasped as a welcome counter-narrative to more challenging (and important) claims about the university access in Scotland and lead to more substantial and uncomfortable pieces of work being dismissed out of hand.  As The Scotsman’s decision to include [the author] as the sole expert voice in its piece shows, the appetite for less gloomy alternative perspectives on the access debate means that his own careful expressions of limited expertise will get easily lost.  That’s especially likely if his work gets picked up on social media, with its tendency to confirmation bias (his original piece has been re-tweeted over 200 times).   But the TES  is in a different game from Twitter et al and ought to publish some sort of correction or clarification  underneath its piece.

A few hours later, the TES piece was tweeted twice by the First Minister, who picked out as quotes:

“Scotland is doing a comparatively good job of sending poorer students to university, according to new analysis” and also

“Over the past decade, it [Scotland’s inequality of access to uni] has come down the most. This looks like success”

[Note: This was a fair reading of the TES piece – but the analysis reported on actually shows neither of these.  My earlier post looked at the first claim, I’ll do another on the second.]

They have both been retweeted and favourited  at least a  hundred times.  Some of the re-tweets will surely have been re-tweeted again.

A message not justified by the data now sticks a bit more, not least among the people we most need to look at the situation on student funding with a cold, hard eye (and therefore to do the same also with access, cat and mouse statistical claims about which are often used to deflect attention from some cold, hard numbers on the unequal distribution of student debt in Scotland).  It will be that bit harder for less comfortable and important messages about the current state of play in Scotland to get a hearing. Who gains from repeatedly finding ways to sweep aside  the debate about who ends up with the most debt in Scotland? Those who are already relatively privileged. Who loses? Those with the most to lose already.

Once again, I don’t think this was the TES’s finest hour.


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