Saturday 7 November 2015

“Go back to where you came from.”

This post originally appeared on The Co-Op, a blog of young(ish) writers of varying ideological and political perspectives.

When I was 9 years old, I went to a friend’s house to play Age of Empires. Some of his extended family happened to be there at the time, and his step-father asked me “where are you from?” Truthfully, I answered “Birkenhead”, the suburb where I lived. His response was “Don’t you be cheeky, where are you actually from?” Confused, I answered “Here?” Suddenly, he held me in a headlock and shouted “you bloody well know what I mean, where are you from?” The sounds of laughter from the rest of the room rang in my ears. I managed to mumble something like “my parents are from Taiwan.” He let go and said “that wasn’t that hard, was it?”

When I was 13 years old, I was a patrol leader at my local scout troop. One of the other scouts was sitting on an empty wooden box and swinging his legs against the sides, creating a lot of noise. I asked him to stop because the constant banging was making me uncomfortable and a little bit anxious. He said “you can’t tell me what to do, this is my country.” I had to go sit somewhere else.

When I was 15 years old, I was sitting in math class at the desk closest to the door. It was open, and a breeze was blowing in. While the class was working on some exercises, I asked the teacher if I could close the door because I was getting a bit cold. He said “If you think it’s too cold maybe you should go back to Asia.” I replied with “I was born here” and shut the door. When I later told a friend that racism was well and alive within our school she told me to “stop being ridiculous”.

I am relatively lucky because I live in comparatively multicultural Auckland, study and work in an environment where immigrants outnumber non-immigrants, and nowadays am largely safe and isolated from these sorts of interactions. Ron Mark’s comments during the first reading of the Shop Trading Hours Amendment Bill brought all the memories rushing back. He told Melissa Lee “if you do not like New Zealand, go back to Korea.” I sat in a laboratory quietly seething, unable to do any work. I don’t like these memories. I don’t like sharing these memories either, but maybe this can demonstrate to some people why the statement to go back to where you came from is offensive. I cannot bear to imagine what life must be like for migrants living in less ethnically tolerant areas of the country.

We cannot simply write this off as more of the same from New Zealand First. This is a party that has been polling between 5 and 9 percent. That’s a sizeable chunk of the electorate that believes in this party. 67% of respondents on a RadioLIVE poll said that Ron Mark’s comments were not racist. Every time any of our elected representatives engage in this kind of rhetoric, it signals to the population that this behaviour is okay. To be clear, that time Maggie Barry told Russel Norman to go back to Australia was just as wrong. But let me also say that just because one side was racist, that doesn’t give the other side free license to say whatever they want. An eye for an eye only makes the world go blind.

For Ron Mark’s NZ First colleagues to back him up only further reiterates that this behaviour is apparently okay. Winston Peters said that any claims of racism were “poppycock”. Barbara Stewart said that the comment was not racist and was “taken out of context” (when his comments were very much in the context of a racist speech targeting public holidays in Korea and India and implying that these other countries have too manypublic holidays; in fact his entire speech was laced with derision and offence). Pita Paraone said “it was said in the heat of the moment as part of the theatre of Parliament.” None of these statements are anywhere near satisfactory for a parliament that seeks to represent an increasingly multicultural nation. The closest we got was Tracey Martin saying “it’s not a statement I would have made.”

I can appreciate that Ron Mark didn’t like being told that New Zealand should “grow up”. That’s possibly a fair point to make (just because other people do it overseas doesn’t necessarily mean we should do it here), but the way he addressed that point was completely wrong. Never mind that the claims made by Ron Mark about public holidays in Korea and India and shops being closed were factually wrong anyway. As Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi said, “Your knowledge is totally zero … on any religious day in India, on a holiday, shops open.” It’s the fact that his approach makes migrants feel unwelcome, that their opinions are not valid, that they should just “shut up and conform” that is deeply problematic.

Ron Mark makes it clear that Lee and Bakshi are not real New Zealanders when he says in his speech “while we know certain people are toeing the National Party line like a little bunch of whipped puppies, back in their world they would never, ever dare stand up and say this.” His use of “back in their world” effectively says that the fact that Lee and Bakshi have been in New Zealand for 27 and 14 years respectively is worth nothing. “Go back to where you came from” is a phrase that has always been loaded with xenophobia, and I really don’t see a context where it could be used to mean anything other than “you’re not welcome because you’re not from here.”

It doesn’t matter to me that Ron Mark was directing his statement at migrants and I was born here. The common racist usually doesn’t take the time to establish my place of birth. His comments to “go back where you came from” were of the same vein as statements directed at me throughout my childhood that made me feel as if I did not belong. The intolerance and xenophobia is an ugly side of New Zealand that degrades the experience of living in this country for many. I’m sick and tired of hearing it from our MPs. They should simply be better.

In my opinion Dame Susan Devoy has been doing a great job in her role as the Race Relations Commissioner in giving some marginalised groups a high-profile voice. Earlier today she said “Kiwis born overseas have a right to a say over the country they call home, where they work, vote, pay taxes and contribute: overseas born Kiwis are not second class citizens who have fewer rights than other New Zealanders… We’re at a crossroads when it comes to race relations, we either get on with each other, and lead the world in race relations: or we take pleasure in prejudice and leave our children with a race relations crisis to deal with, it’s up to us.”

When the current generation of parliamentarians put their prejudice on display as Ron Mark did on Tuesday, it makes me feel like I shouldn’t participate because my voice is not valid. Personally, I would actually quite like the shops to be open over Easter. It would be a lot more convenient, and if someone wants to stay closed for religious reasons they can stay closed. I guess if I don’t like it the way it is now, then I should go back home… to Auckland. I’m grateful to the various people, both in and outside of the House, who have criticised the comments and refused to let it slide. It helps me to feel a bit of hope that one day this type of racism and xenophobia can be eliminated. It strengthens my resolve to stay here and try to make New Zealand a better place.

There was a small ray of humour arising from all of this for me. When the clip of Ron Mark came on the news, my Irish flatmate who moved to New Zealand recently was shocked. “Oh my god. Is that the Prime Minister?” Thankfully, thankfully not.

Sunday 4 October 2015

The Paralysis of the Security Council in Syria

This post originally appeared on The Co-Op, a blog of young(ish) writers of varying ideological and political perspectives. 

In this last week, New Zealand took two opportunities, one by Murray McCully at the Security Council and one by John Key at the General Assembly, to deplore the United Nations Security Council for failing to act in Syria. Between Bashar Al-Assad and ISIS/L, the Situation in Syria has become just as bad as, if not worse than, Rwanda in 1994. Last year, the deputy Secretary-General told the UN that a “failure of political will” led to the “cascade of human tragedy” that left between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsi Rwandans slaughtered and a further two million Rwandans displaced seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. In Syria, more than 300,000 civilians have been killed (of which more than a quarter have been women and children) since 2011, leading to the current refugee crisis of over four million (registered) refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries, and a further six million domestically displaced within Syria.
It’s hard to really comprehend the numbers and the sheer scale of the problem; night after night, the news recites the statistics and we become numb to the reality that a group of people the size of the population of New Zealand is currently trying to find a new home. When it comes to determining why this has happened, the knowledge that this could all have been avoided is crushing. Since the first protests held in March 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring, and the violent response from the government, there have been many opportunities for action. Yet every time real action has been proposed, it has been shut down.
Four Security Council resolutions on Syria have been explicitly vetoed, with many more experiencing the “soft veto” – draft resolutions that never even make it to the debating chamber because permanent members have indicated that they will unconditionally veto. Every time this happens, war crimes and crimes against humanity are implicitly permitted to continue by the global community.
In 2005 the United Nations unanimously adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which argues that sovereignty is not an absolute right, and that aspects of sovereignty are forfeited when states fail to protect (or themselves cause) mass atrocity crimes and severe human rights violations. The kicker was that UN Security Council would be the only body that could authorise military intervention. It did so in Darfur (2006), Libya (2011-2012), Cote D’Ivoire (2011), Yemen (2011), Mali (2012-2013), and Sudan/South Sudan (2011-2013). Yet it remains paralysed in the case of Syria, only managing to agree to stop the Syrian government from using chemical weapons against its own people. The Security Council had and still has a Responsibility to Protect, and it has failed to uphold that responsibility thus far.
Many, many proposals for Security Council reform have been proposed over the decades, driven by frustration over the blocking nature of the veto. The situation has only worsened over time, with reports that the permanent members now meet and discuss resolutions in private, essentially pre-determining the outcome of Security Council sessions and locking out the ten rotating elected members. To be frank, the Security Council is currently imbalanced and does not accurately reflect the true power structures of the world we live in today. A structure that allows for entrenched, self-validating authority and privilege will only cause the divide to widen over time.
What looks like the most promising reform proposal at this stage is to prevent the use of veto in cases of mass atrocities or genocide, which would align with the R2P doctrine and the arguments surrounding the “responsibility not to veto”. The proposal is only a small step towards rebalancing the Security Council, but it is supported by both France and the United Kingdom (which only makes it marginally more likely to happen).
However, this is only a band-aid solution. The Security Council’s inaction in Syria is only a symptom of the widening divide and eternal struggle between the West (US, UK, and France) and the East (Russia and China). In 2013 and 2014, a third of the General Assembly called for Security Council and veto reform in their General Debate speeches. More substantial changes will be required in order to clear the blockage that restricts the flow of political will through the Security Council.
Personally, I would support increased utilisation of UNGA Resolution 377A (“Uniting for Peace), which has unfortunately mostly become an idealised plot device for writers (I’m looking at you, House of Cards). In response to inaction by the Security Council to respond to the Korean War in 1950, a precedent was established that allows a special majority (2/3rds) of the General Assembly to override vetos in the Security Council and have “final responsibility” for restoring international peace and security. Of course, a lot of international relations and politics still limit the ultimate utility of this mechanism, but removing the bottleneck of the Security Council may be what is necessary to salvage the efficacy of the United Nations.
As the Prime Minister said: “We cannot afford to let the council go from an institution with failings to a failed institution.” Business as usual does not cut it. Without reform the Security Council will only descend into irrelevancy (and drag the entire United Nations down with it) until someone believes that they have the mandate to try something different. The uncertainty of that is unsettling, but more importantly in the meantime, the deaths continue.

Monday 17 August 2015

Why is the TPP being negotiated in secret?

This post originally appeared on The Co-Op, a blog of young(ish) writers of varying ideological and political perspectives.

“You don’t go into a poker game with your cards laid out on the table.” – National MP Chris Bishop (at the AUSA politics week debate, 14 August 2015)

Apart from the obvious issue of comparing trade negotiations with gambling, this response creates an interesting train of thought. The proponents of the TPP have long argued that “international trade agreements are always negotiated in secret”, as if tradition can never be challenged. They argue that this is because negotiators cannot do their jobs effectively if their every move is questioned by the public. They argue that negotiators cannot achieve the best outcome for their respective countries if they reveal too much information. Maybe two months ago I would have agreed with them, but over the last few weeks I thought a little bit more about why those arguments might not hold up.

There are two key flaws with these arguments that rely on traditional models of negotiation. Firstly, international trade negotiations are a vastly different beast to confidential business-to-business negotiations, because so much information is available in the public domain about each of the parties. It is no secret that New Zealand wants better access to sell dairy in currently highly tariffed or subsidised markets. It is no secret that the United States wants to extend intellectual property protection on medical drugs in order to better incentivise pharmaceutical development. It is no secret that Vietnam and Malaysia want to keep their state-owned businesses that provide lower cost services to the majority of their populations.

These negotiation positions and bottom lines are known because we have a multitude of data with which to understand the background and context of each country. Each party to the negotiations is a government that debates in their respective houses publicly about the trials and tribulations facing their countries almost every day. It’s difficult to see how any of the parties to the negotiations could have secret bargaining positions that are unknown to the others. At a broad level, everyone knows what everyone else wants. Everyone knows what the overall goals of each state are, and everyone knows what the bottom lines of each state are. There may be some details left to quibble over, but what a state is willing or not willing to give up is largely known, and therefore not worth trying to keeping secret from the other negotiators. The lack of commonality between the bargaining positions is probably what is causing the negotiations to endlessly go on (they were started in 2009), which leads us to the next point.

The second key flaw is the assumption that there is something to be won over the other parties. When there are so many people in involved, and so many eyes scrutinising any deal, any party is going to know if they’re getting shafted pretty quickly. In traditional models of negotiation, the goal is often to come away with an agreement that is a win for you, even if that means less of a win or a loss for the other party. You can rely on underhanded tactics, from psychological manipulation to lying in order to convince the other party to take a deal that is in your interests and probably not really in theirs.

These tactics are much less likely to work when entire countries are involved. A government that agrees to and signs a deal that is detrimental to their country is likely to get hit with a referendum or voted out, and the legislation required to ratify any agreement would be not passed or later repealed. Government and trade negotiators know this – they have to push very hard not to lose in these negotiations. So there are two endgames here. One is that we follow the traditional model, and everyone pushes for their self-interest in order to “win”. If we follow that strategy, then perhaps withholding information to create an asymmetric situation to hold power makes sense. But with twelve rather diverse parties, it seems increasingly likely that this means that there are areas with no common ground, making it difficult for all parties to win.

The other endgame is that everyone pushes for compromise, in order to achieve the best deal for all parties involved. This utilitarianistic thinking would mean that some parties (probably the bigger ones) take more of a hit than others, in order to create an even and fair agreement that benefits everyone a little bit, rather than benefitting a few parties a lot. This is ultimately what should really be happening if the parties want to be able to pass a deal, because they know that a deal passed with all parties involved is much stronger than a deal passed with only half the parties on board. To do this, the parties have to co-operate, much like an anti-competitive cartel. The parties have to trust each other, and work together to find the solution that optimises towards a good deal for everyone. In this case, it doesn’t actually make sense for negotiators to withhold information from each other, because it makes it harder to achieve that optimal deal if they don’t know what each party wants.

Lastly, there’s one more important point to bring up. It is argued that if the trade agreement is not negotiated in secret, if the public is able to follow the negotiations, then the deal will fall apart. This can be argued ideologically, but to see if this stands up we only have to look at the reality. The fact that chapters of the draft agreement have been leaked has already at least partially compromised the secrecy of the agreement. The fact that the public is talking about the agreement, and that there are rallies and protests in the various countries, means that the secrecy surrounding the agreement has not been effective at preventing the public from scrutinising the deal and challenging their governments. Most importantly, despite the failure to keep the TPP out of public discussion, the negotiations have gone on undeterred. The main asserted harm of losing the secrecy of the negotiations has not eventuated.

I am not necessarily opposed to there being a trade agreement. I am not necessarily opposed to free trade, and like many TPP supporters, I will withhold judgement on the actual deal until we have seen it. But the secrecy surrounding the deal is something that I have issue with, and I am yet to read or see a good reason why that secrecy should continue. If the benefits of secrecy have not accrued, then what is the real reason for keeping the negotiations secret?

Friday 31 July 2015

Party Vote Demographics: Part III

In this series of blog posts, I’m looking at electorate demographics from the 2013 census, and the relationship with votes for political parties in the 2014 election. This is an important disclaimer, so I will repeat it again: correlation does not imply causation. This post will look at religion, marriage, and some other claims.

“Christians vote Conservative and United Future”
In electorates where there are more people who declare a religious affiliation with …
… Christianity (all denominations) (Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Christian nfd, Latter-day Saints, Methodist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Congregational, Reformed, and Other Christian), fewer people voted for the Greens (r=-0.568)
… Māori Christianity (all denominations) (Rātana, Ringatū, Other Māori Christian), a lot more people voted for InternetMANA (r=+0.829) and the Māori Party (r=+0.844)
… Baptism, more people voted Conservative (r=+0.469) and ACT (r=+0.337)
… Anglicanism, slightly more people voted Conservative (r=+0.150), and fewer people voted for Labour (r=-0.486)
… Catholicism, Latter-Day Saints, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Other Christians, more people voted for Labour (r≈+0.5)
… Judaism, more people voted for ACT (r=+0.426), slightly more people voted for the Civilian Party (r=+0.248), United Future (r=+0.221), and National (r=+0.197), and fewer people voted for NZ First (r=-0.466)
… Buddhism, a lot more people voted for ACT (r=+0.819), and fewer people voted for NZ First (r=-0.597) and ALCP (r=-0.657)
… Hinduism, more people voted for Labour (r=+0.565) and ACT (r=+0.448), and fewer people voted for ALCP (r=-0.574)
… Islam, more people voted for Labour (r=+0.603) and ACT (r=+0.446), and fewer people voted for ALCP (r=-0.587) and NZ First (r=-0.495)
… Spiritualism and New Age religions, slightly more people voted for the Greens (r=+0.146)
… no religion, fewer people voted for Labour (r=-0.313)

Discussion: As the number of non-religious people in New Zealand grows (from 29.6% in 2001 to 41.9% in 2013), the role of religion in politics should be gradually eroding away. However, we do have parties with strong ties to religious groups, such as the Conservative Party (apparently popular in electorates with more Baptists and Anglicans). There appears to be no relationship between United Future and number of religious people in a particular electorate, which is surprising given the party’s roots in the Christian-based Future New Zealand party.

There are probably some overlaps between religion and ethnicity; for example, electorates with more Māori Christianity more strongly supported the Māori Party and InternetMANA, which shouldn’t be too surprising. Religions more common among immigrants, including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, followed similar patterns to correlations for recent immigrants. A few interesting observations can be made of the religious preferences of Labour and Green voting electorates, but I’m inclined to dismiss those correlations as coincidence mainly because I can’t think of any reason why those relationships should exist.

“[Insert political side here] are more likely to be married”
In electorates where more people are…
… married (not separated), more people voted for the Conservatives (r=+0.771), National (r=+0.760), and United Future (r=+0.331), and fewer people voted for InternetMANA (r=-0.505), the Māori Party (r=-0.455), and NZ First (r=-0.236)
… divorced, more people voted for NZ First (r=+0.637), the Conservatives (r=+0.273), and the Māori Party (r=+0.110)
… not (have never been) married or in a civil union, slightly more people voted for the Greens (r=+0.175), fewer people voted for NZ First (r=-0.236), the Conservatives (r=-0.752), and National (r=-0.760)

Discussion: There are claims on both sides; some people think right-wingers are more likely to be in marriages because of the religious connections, others think that left-wingers are more likely to be in marriages because of the family connections, and so on. The correlations suggest that electorates with more married people are more likely to vote right-wing, and that Māori Party and InternetMANA supporting electorates have fewer married people. Electorates with a lot of divorcees voted more for NZ First, and all the single ladies people electorates were marginally in more support of the Greens and very strongly not in support of the Conservatives or National. So maybe there could be some truth in the statement that single people are not right-wingers, until the day that they sign a bit of paper with a significant other so that the state recognises them as legally married, when they suddenly get hit by a wave of neoliberalism and realise that Colin Craig had it right all along. Maybe.

“Smart/Educated (not synonymous) people won’t vote for the Civilian Party”
In electorates where there are more people...
… with Bachelors degrees, more people voted for the Civilian Party (r≈+0.38)
… with Honours degrees, more people voted for the Civilian Party (r≈+0.52)
… with Masters degrees, more people voted for the Civilian Party (r≈+0.42)
… with Doctorate degrees, more people voted for the Civilian Party (r≈+0.52)
… with tertiary education degrees, more people voted for the Greens (r≈+0.7), ACT (r≈+0.5), and United Future (r≈+0.37), and fewer people voted for ALCP (r≈-0.4) and NZ First (r≈-0.57)

Discussion: The argument was that more educated people take politics more seriously and wouldn’t dare to waste their vote on a joke party. The evidence reasonably clearly contradicts this, perhaps suggesting that satire might be relatively high-brow or that more educated people may be more disenfranchised with the political system and don’t care about their vote as much. Electorates with more educated people also voted more for the Greens and ACT, and less for ALCP and NZ First, which could be explained by a larger number of highly educated people living in urban/city areas, and thus capturing similar voting patterns as those discovered based on ethnicity and immigration. I note that education is not necessarily a good proxy for “smart”.

“People who use the internet will vote for the InternetMANA Party”
In electorates where there are more households with…
… access to the internet, there were no relationships with party vote
… access to a fax machine, slightly fewer people voted for InternetMANA (r=-0.160)
… access to a fax machine, a lot more people voted for the Conservatives (r=+0.523) and the National Party (r=+0.602)

Discussion: Okay so maybe no one really said this seriously, but it was fun to check anyway. Keith Ng found this surprising, since he “assume[d] people with fax machines were steampunks, therefore more likely to vote Internet[MANA]”. The reasonably strong relationship between fax machines and Conservative/National was a little surprising, but then again, maybe only old rich people can afford to maintain their fax machines. All that oiling and lubricating required to get those things going. Nothing beats the feeling of slightly warm slightly waxed paper telling you how much more money you’ve made. Toasty.

One important demographic that you might be wondering about is gender. There were no correlations found between number of votes for a political party in an electorate and the number of males/females in an electorate. This is largely due to the fact that we’re dealing at this rather coarse granularity, and all of the electorates have a roughly 49/51 male/female split, meaning that there are few differences between electorates.

You might also wonder why Labour, and to a lesser degree National, do not feature in these statistics a lot. The correlations are good for picking out odd relationships that would not appear if all characteristics were randomly (normally) distributed, which are typically relationships that only exist for a few categories of a demographic. Since Labour and National have relatively broad appeal, they largely attract people from all demographic groups, enough that it makes it statistically difficult to extract a relationship.

That’s it for demographic voting correlations. There were a lot more that could have been discussed, but a lot were quite specific (for example, 60-64 year old females who speak Tagalog) and probably not all that useful to discuss at such a broad level. Interesting? Entirely useless? How you interpret the statistics is ultimately up to you.

Okay, if you wanted some more, there's an appendix with some other pointless(ly fun) correlations.

But wait, there's more! Now you can see the data yourself, and pick your choice of political party and demographic variable - I made a visualisation, available here: (Note that it is a work in progress, so if it is completely broken when you try to look at it, try again in a few minutes).

Party Vote Demographics: Appendix II - Other pointless(ly fun) correlations

As part of my investigations into electorate demographics and party voting behaviour, I came across some interesting (yet largely irrelevant) variables in the census data and checked for correlations there:

In electorates where more households…
… owned three or more motor vehicles, slightly more people voted for ALCP (r=+0.107)
… owned two motor vehicles, marginally more people voted for the Conservatives (r=+0.017), fewer people voted for Labour (r=-0.316), and slightly fewer people voted for National (r=-0.128)
… owned one motor vehicle, slightly more people voted for the Greens (r=+0.206)
… owned no motor vehicle, marginally more people voted for the Greens (r=+0.061)

In electorates where more people…
… were regular smokers, fewer people voted ACT (r=-0.462)
… were ex-smokers, more people voted for NZ First (r=+0.574), the Maori Party (r=+0.317), DSC (r=+0.310) and Conservative (r=+0.161), and fewer people voted Labour (r=-0.418)
… had never smoked regularly before, more people voted ACT (r=+0.556), Greens (r=+0.354), and the Civilian Party (r=+0.309), slightly more voted for United Future (r=+0.197) and National (r=+0.109), and fewer people voted for the Maori Party (r=-0.195), ALCP (r=-0.406), and NZ First (r=-0.438)

In electorates where more people voted for…
… ACT, more people spoke Hindi (r=+0.331), Northern Chinese (r=+0.920), Yue (r=+0.858), Sinitic not further defined (r=+0.893), Tagalog (r=+0.561), Afrikaans (r=+0.492), and Korean (r=+0.637)
… ALCP, more people spoke English (r=+0.670), and fewer people spoke Samoan (r=-0.344), Hindi (r=-0.526), Northern Chinese (r=-0.540), French (r=-0.283), Yue (r=-0.528), Sinitic not further defined (r=-0.570), German (r=-0.262), Tongan (r=-0.363), Tagalog (r=-0.414), Afrikaans (r=-0.338), Spanish (r=-0.315), and Korean (r=-0.435)
… the Conservatives, more people spoke Afrikaans (r=+0.446) (here’s looking at you Upper Harbour and East Coast Bays), and fewer people spoke None (e.g. too young to talk) (r=-0.604)
… the Greens, more people spoke French (r=+0.851), German (r=+0.827), and Spanish (r=+0.729)
… InternetMANA, more people spoke Maori (r=+0.688)
… Labour, more people spoke Samoan (r=+0.776), Hindi (r=+0.625), and Tongan (r=+0.660)
… the Maori Party, more people spoke Maori (r=+0.795)
… National, more people spoke German (r=+0.349), Afrikaans (r=+0.396), and Korean (r=+0.223)
… NZ First, fewer people spoke Northern Chinese (r=-0.512), Yue (r=-0.477), and Sinitic not further defined (r=-0.526)
… the Civilian Party, more people spoke French (r=+0.467), German (r=+0.461), and Spanish (r=+0.394)
… United Future, more people spoke French (r=+0.411), German (r=+0.536), Tagalog (r=+0.327), and Spanish (r=+0.266)

Thursday 30 July 2015

Party Vote Demographics: Part II

In the last post, I explained how we’re using electorate census data and electorate voting data to find statistical relationships between electorate demographics and party vote. There are plenty of limitations associated with using this data in this way, so all statistics should be interpreted with caution. Just in case you’d forgotten, I’ll say it again: correlation does not imply causation. This post will look at ethnicity, families, and immigration.

“Māori just vote for the Māori Party and Mana”
In electorates where there are more Māori…
… of any age, a lot more people voted for the Māori Party (r≈+0.76) and InternetMANA (r≈+0.68)
… aged 15-44 years old, less people voted for the Conservatives (r≈-0.50)

Discussion: It should be noted that any statistics involving Māori ethnicity are heavily skewed by the inclusion of the Māori electorates in the analysis. The Māori Party received 10-20 times more votes in Māori electorates than General electorates (InternetMANA’s variation was a little less).

“Polynesian families vote Labour and Asians vote right-wing”
In electorates where there are more…
… Pacific Peoples, a lot more people voted for Labour (r=+0.708), and fewer people voted for ALCP (r=-0.251)
… Asians, a lot more people voted for ACT (r=+0.773), slightly fewer people voted for InternetMANA (r=-0.167) and Māori (r=-0.253), and fewer people voted for NZ First (r=-0.546) and ALCP (r=-0.656)

Discussion: Labour attracted much higher party votes in the Pacific Ms – Mana, Mangere, Manukau, Manurewa, and Maungakiekie. ACT attracted more votes in electorates with more Asians - New Lynn, Mt Roskill, Botany, and Pakuranga (and of course Epsom). These areas (which also happen to all be suburban areas in Central and East Auckland) gave NZ First fewer votes, plausibly on the back of the perception within the Asian community that NZ First is a xenophobic party, and also gave ALCP fewer votes, plausibly due to the stronger anti-drug stances held by most south-east Asians. I should note that individuals can choose more than one ethnicity in the census, so they may be counted more than once in the ethnicity statistics but are only responsible for one (or no) vote in the election.

“The bigger the family, the more likely they’ll vote Labour (Working for Families, etc.)”
In electorates where there are more females with…
… no children, more people voted for the Greens (r=+0.539) and the Civilian Party (r=+0.301), slightly more people voted ACT (r=+0.185), and fewer people voted NZ First (r=-0.568)
… one child, slightly more people voted ALCP (r=+0.268), ACT (r=+0.141)
… two children, more people voted for the Conservatives (r=+0.528) and National (r=+0.437), slightly more people voted for United Future (r=+0.153), and fewer people voted Labour (r=-0.538)
… three children, a lot more people voted for NZ First (r=+0.711), and more people voted for the Conservatives (r=+0.386), DSC (r=+0.353), National (r=+0.197), and the Māori Party (r=+0.178)
… four children, a lot more people voted for NZ First (r=+0.616), and fewer people voted National (r=-0.168)
… five children, more people voted for NZ First (r=+0.403), and fewer people voted for the Greens (r=-0.520)
… six or more children, slightly more people voted Labour (r=+0.277)
… an objection to answering about how many children they have, more people voted for NZ First (r=+0.303)

Discussion: It should be noted that these statistics relate to the “number of children born alive” by females, which isn’t necessarily a direct match for family size. For example, “no children” includes single people and young people, who are less likely to have been pregnant. Therefore it seems more reasonable for there to be a correlation between electorates with more people with no children and party vote for the Greens and Civilian, not because the supporters of those parties are opposed to having children, but simply because those parties may be more popular with young people.

I think in general what these statistics show is that the number of children is probably a very poor indicator of party vote. It could possibly be argued that electorates with women with more children vote more left-wing than right-wing, but I think that would be a pretty tenuous argument based on these statistics. I’m not sure why people would object to Statistics NZ knowing anonymously how many children you’ve had (55,199 individuals), but electorates with more of those people also voted more for NZ First, which perhaps suggests that Winston supporters tend not to trust the government with information about them. Maybe.

“Immigrants vote for [insert various statements here]”
In the general electorates where there are more people…
… born in Asia, greatly more people voted for ACT (r=+0.854), and fewer people voted for NZ First (r=-0.620) and ALCP (r=-0.692)
… born in Middle East and Africa, more people voted for ACT (r=+0.679), slightly more people voted for National (r=+0.160), and fewer people voted for ALCP (r=-0.466)
… born in Australia, more people voted for the Greens (r=+0.496) and National (r=+0.443), slightly more people voted for United Future (r=+0.225), the Conservatives (r=+0.142), and the Civilian Party (r=+0.168), and fewer people voted for Labour (r=-0.539)
… born in the Pacific Islands, greatly more people voted for Labour (r=+0.753), and fewer people voted for ALCP (r=-0.436)
… born in North America, greatly more people voted for the Greens (r=+0.840), more people voted for the Civilian Party (r=+0.368) and United Future (r=+0.330), and slightly more people voted for National (r=+0.143)
… arrived to NZ within the last 2 years, more people voted for ACT (r=+0.482), and fewer people voted for ALCP (r=-0.575) and NZ First (r=-0.638)
… arrived to NZ within the last 3-9 years, more people voted for ACT (r≈+0.63), and fewer people voted for the Maori Party (r≈-0.22), NZ First (r≈-0.61), and ALCP (r≈-0.72)
… arrived to NZ within the last 10-19 years, a lot more people voted for ACT (r=+0.834), and fewer people voted for the Maori Party (r=-0.269), NZ First (r=-0.589), and ALCP (r=-0.721)
… born overseas, more people voted for ACT (r≈+0.7), slightly fewer people voted for the Maori Party (r≈-0.2), and a lot fewer people voted for NZ First (r≈-0.6) and ALCP (r≈-0.7)

Discussion: The census reports data for people who were born overseas only for the General Electorates, which we can use as a proxy for immigration. Firstly, electorates with more Asians, Middle East and Africans voted more for ACT, and really didn’t like NZ First and ALCP. (Electorates with more) Australians voted more for the Greens and National and a lot less for Labour (perhaps a contagion effect from the Labor party across the ditch). As covered previously, Pacific Islanders voted more for Labour (and less for ALCP), and (electorates with more) North Americans really liked the Greens! Electorates with recent immigrants (and also less recent immigrants) liked ACT, plausibly due to the more recent influx of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African immigrants, who also heavily disliked NZ First and ALCP. That trend holds for all immigrants in general as well.

Coming up – even MORE demographics (the final dataset I used had over 1,800 variables)!

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Party Vote Demographics: Part I

I was thinking about what the “average voter” for each political party looks like, and my marketing research training kicked in. Pull a bunch of demographic data from the census, try to match it to party vote data from the last election, and hey presto, we should be able to build some reasonably interesting profiles.

It turns out that it’s a bit harder than it seems, and as a result there are a lot of caveats. We can’t match individual demographics to individual votes, because if that data was available it would be a reasonably significant breach of privacy. So we have to decide what level of granularity is sufficient for our analysis – after digging through meshblocks and area units, eventually I settled on electorate demographic comparisons; in electorates where there are more people of x category, were there more or less votes for y party?

Note that I am being careful with my wording there (and I will do my best to be careful with my wording throughout these posts, but will inevitably slip up somewhere). Most importantly, these are correlations, which does not imply causation. This is important, so I will say it again – correlation does not imply causation. If you read this post and make unconditional declarative causative statements I will be upset at you. For many of the correlations I found, it is entirely plausible for it to be a coincidence or for there to be some other factor that explains the relationship. It is tempting to say that certain groups of people are more or less likely to vote for a particular party, but we must remind ourselves that these statistics do not imply causation; these statistics cannot prove that the fact that an individual belongs to a particular demographic group causes them to vote for a particular party. I should also note that all discussions in these posts about why the correlations exist are largely guesses/opinions and not scientific.

Just so that I don’t bore the general audience too much, other statisticsy things that I did to try and make things robust and fair are explained in an appendix post for those who are interested.

For each of the correlations, I’ll include the correlation coefficient, or r statistic. This is a measure of how strong the relationship between the two variables is, ranging between -1 and 1. If r is negative, then as one variable increases the other decreases, and if the number is positive then as one variable increases the other also increases. r=0 would indicate exactly no relationship. The larger the magnitude of the number, the stronger the relationship. For example, r=-0.25 would be a weakly negative relationship, r=-0.8 would be a very strongly negative relationship, r=+0.4 would be a reasonably strong positive relationship, and so on.

To give us some direction, I figured maybe what we should do is explore some commonly held stereotypes about the political parties, and see if they were reflected in the demographics and voting statistics. Let’s start with income and age.

“Richer people vote for ACT, the Conservatives, and National, poorer people vote for Labour”
In electorates where there are more people (aged 15 and over)…
… with zero income, more people voted for ACT (r=+0.358), fewer people voted for Democrats for Social Credit (DSC) (r=-0.472)
… in the $10,001-$35,000 income bracket, more people voted for NZ First (r≈+0.6), and slightly more people voted for DSC (r≈+0.25)
… in the $15,001-$25,000 income bracket, slightly more people voted for the Conservatives (r≈+0.23)
… in the $25,001-$30,000 income bracket, fewer people voted for ACT (r=-0.575)
… in the $25,001-$40,000 income bracket, more people voted for Ban1080 (r≈+0.23)
… earning $50,001 or more (per year), slightly more people voted for National (r≈+0.25)
… earning $50,001 or more (per year), more people voted for United Future (r≈+0.4)
… earning $60,001 or more (per year), more people voted for the Greens (r≈+0.5)
… earning $70,001 or more (per year), more people voted for ACT (r≈+0.38)

Discussion: The statistics would suggest that electorates with richer people do vote for ACT and National, but also vote for United Future and interestingly the Greens! The Green relationship in particular is possibly explained by the support for the Greens in central urban areas, especially in Wellington, that also happen to be areas with higher income individuals. Electorates with more low income individuals did not vote more for Labour. Surprisingly, electorates with more people with zero income also had more people vote for ACT, which could possibly be explained by those electorates having more stay-at-home housewives or young students with no income, dependent on the high(er) income of the main breadwinner in the household.

“Old people vote for NZ First”
In electorates where there are more people…
… aged 15-39 years old, fewer people voted for NZ First (r≈-0.4)
… aged 50-79 years old, significantly more people voted for NZ First (r≈+0.7)
… aged 50 years and older, more people voted for the Conservatives (r increasing from +0.209 to +0.65)
… aged 50-84 years old, more people voted for DSC (r≈+0.47)
… aged 60 years and older, fewer people voted for InternetMANA (r decreasing from -0.164 to -0.406)
… aged 45-54 years old, more people voted for the Māori Party (r≈+0.25)
… aged 60 years and older, fewer people voted for the Māori Party (r decreasing from -0.124 to -0.417)
… aged 55 years and older, more people voted for National (r increasing from +0.252 to +0.515)

Discussion: The stereotype largely holds up – electorates with more young people voted less for NZ First, and electorates with more old people voted more for NZ First (Bay of Plenty, Tauranga, Coromandel, and Whangarei). Other “old-friendly” parties included the Conservatives, DSC, and National, while InternetMANA and the Māori Party were less popular in electorates with more people aged 60 years and older.

“Young people are more left-wing”
In electorates where there are more people…
… aged 20-29 years old, slightly more people voted for the Greens (r≈+0.23) and the Civilian Party (r≈+0.16)

Discussion: The Greens do well at attracting the youth vote on the back of long-term sustainability policies, and they had a lot of party votes in student-heavy electorates like Christchurch Central, Dunedin North, Auckland Central, Rongotai, and Wellington Central. Younger people probably also take politics less seriously (or alternatively are more disenfranchised with the system), hence the Civilian Party. It’s a little odd that there is no statistical relationship between young people and Labour though.

The interesting thing (at least to me) about these statistics is how they reveal people’s biases. The statistics are hard cold truth, but how we choose to interpret the statistics is another matter. Whether we allow ourselves to question our biases or just selectively reinforce them is something I find fascinating. Coming up – more voter demographics!

Party Vote Demographics: Appendix I - Extra Statistics Chat

The census dataset that I am using is (shout out to NZ Herald Data Editor Harkanwal Singh), which conveniently provides numbers at the electorate level. I can also recommend the data files produced from that dataset by Jonathan Marshall which is available on Github which is much nicer to work with. The vote numbers come from, pulled and processed with some code kindly provided by Chuan-Zheng Lee.

After rejecting some of the less interesting variables provided in the census data (mostly about employment), I was left with only 1815 variables to check. Yes, that’s still a lot of variables. When I initially set the analysis to return correlations that were statistically significant at the 5% level of significance, it returned about 12,000 correlations. After talking to Chuan-Zheng I realised that I was dumb and forgot that I was actually working with the entire population, where “statistically significant” no longer makes sense because we’re not working with samples. So I got rid of statistical significance in terms of individual correlations entirely.

A straight bivariate correlation analysis would return a lot of misleading correlations, because in general, if there are more people in an electorate, there are also more people voting, and more people in any demographic category. To counter this I followed some internet advice and used an equation from Steiger (1980) to determine if there was a statistically significant difference between the two correlations:
- r12 the number of people in the electorate vs the number of votes for a particular party
- r13 the number of votes for a particular party vs the number of people in a particular demographic group
To help ensure that the claims made were strong and unlikely to be explained by the variation in electorate populations, I set the analysis to only return correlations where the difference between r12 and r13 was statistically significant at the 0.1% level.

Additionally, any correlations that had an r between -0.1 and 0.1 were removed and analysed separately, as they are so close to 0 that the relationship is likely that there is no relationship between the two variables (which may be statistically significant but not all that interesting for most of what we’re looking at here).

I should probably note somewhere (and here is as good a place as any) that the sample size in most cases was 71 (all the general electorates + Maori electorates), except for the immigrant data which was not available for the Maori electorates (and thus the sample size was reduced to 64).

Where I’ve used r≈ instead of r=, it’s because I’ve actually combined a couple of correlations for ease of communication. For example, “people earning $70,001 or more” is actually “people earning $70,001-$100,000, people earning $100,000-$150,000, and people earning $150,001 or more”, but I didn’t want to manually group that data because hey, I got hungry and needed time to make dinner. It’s an approximation of the strength of relationship at least, and I guess is intended to be more directional than accurate magnitudinally (magnitude-wise? in terms of magnitude?).

Everything was done in Python (without the use of NumPy or SciPy because as it turns out I would rather spend a few hours torturing myself trying to figure out how to implement the algorithms from scratch than spend a few minutes installing some commonly used modules). In retrospect I should have just pulled out R. Fun (questionable) fact: the number of R User Group meetings per month worldwide is (on average) increasing at a rate of 0.6 meetings per month since November 2008.

Sunday 12 July 2015

A Chen by any other name

This post originally appeared on The Co-Op, a blog of young(ish) writers of varying ideological and political perspectives.

On Saturday, the New Zealand Herald published an “special investigation” originally titled Who’s buying our houses?. In this article, data for almost 4,000 house sales in Auckland over the course of three months (Feb-Apr 2015) from one real estate firm is analysed in conjunction with Census 2013 data. It is claimed by the Labour Party that “ethnic Chinese” account for 9% of the Auckland population, but accounted for 39.5% of house transactions during that period. The kicker? The ethnicity of the individuals involved in the house transactions was based on surnames. A complicated sounding Bayesian analysis (which essentially means using probability and past data to predict future data) is used to justify how ethnicity is derived from surnames. In the process, we compare samples of 1.4 million and 4,000 and pretend that everything is okay. The claim is that “Chinese names make up about eight out of the 20 most common ones among Auckland residents but fill 19 of the top 20 places for house buyers.” Ignoring that a couple of the last names (Kim, Singh, Saur) aren't even Chinese, the insinuation is that Chinese people are buying more houses than they should, assuming that everyone should have an equal ability to buy a home.

Keith Ng rips apart the statistics here (tldnr there are many poor assumptions being made to arrive at this conclusion), and Rob Salmond, who claims to have done the quantitative analysis for the Labour Party, defends his work here (tldnr statistics isn’t perfect and this analysis is good enough).

The people who went through the data and reported it are quick to point out the caveats. House buyers sometimes buy via intermediaries such as trusts or lawyers. The data comes from only one agency that may be a biased source of information. The data is for a short period of time where seasonal effects may dominate. Surnames cannot prove whether a buyer is a foreigner or a local.

The people who did the analysis now seem to acknowledge that the data is poor. We feed garbage into the analysis, and we cannot expect anything other than garbage to come out. On the one level, the analysis and assertions made about race and surnames are deeply offensive and frankly unnecessary. On another level, this is simply poor statistics. The analysts should have said “look, we can’t make solid claims from this data, we’re going to get attacked on this”. Instead, they doubled down and said “we did our best with the data”. The conclusions drawn are meant to feed into a national policy debate and be relied upon – working with bad data is only going to lead to bad outcomes for everyone involved. With the many people involved, from the Labour Party to external statisticians to the NZ Herald, someone, somewhere along the line, should have said “we can’t publish this, it’s just not good enough.” That comes before we even get to "we can't publish this, it's offensive".

Knowing all of this, the Labour Party continued anyway and pushed housing spokesperson Phil Twyford forward. He told the NZ Herald: "It's staggering evidence that strongly suggests there's a significant offshore Chinese presence in the Auckland real estate market.” He told The Nation on TV3: “Nearly 40% of houses sold in that period went to people of Chinese descent.” He said on Twitter: “Just look at the numbers. Chinese NZers 9% Akl popn. People of Chinese descent bought 39.5% of houses sold by major Akl real estate firm. This is foreign money.” The message from Twyford is clear – foreigners, specifically Chinese, are responsible for driving up house prices in Auckland. How do we know? Because we looked at their last names.

Maybe the end conclusion is accurate and there is a problem that we need to deal with. But how we got there, and who this targets, is hugely problematic. According to the NZ Herald article, my last name, Chen, is the 6th most common last name in Auckland, while it is the 4th most common last name of people buying homes. The assertion is that the Chinese are buying more property than they should, driving up house prices and creating a property crisis. This implies that people with my last name are a problem.

I’ve written on being a 2nd generation Asian New Zealander before, and how being stuck between two cultures makes it difficult for us to “belong”. To be told that because of my last name, something I did not choose, that I am a problem for “honest hardworking Kiwis”, is crushing. My last name does not singularly define me. Using my last name to determine my “ethnicity” is both inaccurate and offensive. My last name should not indicate whether or not I am more or less likely to buy property in this country. I have roots in Taiwan, but I was born in New Zealand; just because my face looks Chinese and my last name sounds Chinese should not disqualify me from being able to live my life here.

This sort of thing does affect our lives. It feeds into how we are perceived as Asian New Zealanders (and to be clear that’s all Asian New Zealanders because racists tend to not bother to ascertain whether you’re Chinese or not before forming a view about you). We are going to increasingly be criticised and challenged just for trying to live our lives, because someone thought it would be a good idea to use surnames as a determinant of ethnicity. The NZ Herald article even admits that only 40% of people in Auckland with the last name Lee are Chinese. The entire analysis is based on shoddy assumptions (even if the analysis of it is good), but the statistics and conclusions drawn will make people feel more secure in their prejudices and make them feel more justified when they say "yeah, those Chinese are buying too many homes".

Most importantly, it makes me feel like I do not belong. It makes me feel like a drain on society, that I am somehow contributing to a problem when I have done my best for a country that I love. No matter how hard I work, I will always carry my last name with me, and if that is going to cause analysts and political parties to think that I contribute to a housing crisis, then there is little I can do. I can only throw my hands in the air at the futility of it all.

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be educated, find employment, and live in this country. I have seen that our society has become more progressive and accepting as I’ve grown up. I want to be a fully contributing and participating member of this society. I don’t want to be part of the problem, I want to help. Phil Twyford is a good person who genuinely wants to make New Zealand better, and has said that he doesn’t want to offend local Chinese New Zealanders. I know that you didn’t intend to hurt people like me, but unfortunately we’re hurt all the same. To Phil and the rest of the Labour Party: if we have a housing problem, let’s talk about it, but let’s not make this a race/ethnicity problem too. This is not how we fix the problem, this is not how we get to a better New Zealand. My last name may be Chinese, but my identity is Kiwi.

Monday 6 July 2015

What makes a symbol?

This post originally appeared on The Co-Op, a blog of young(ish) writers of varying ideological and political perspectives.

Symbols are visual metaphors – we see something, and it evokes a set of pre-conceived knowledge. We see ☮ and we think peace, anti-war, pacifist protests of the 70s and 80s, and all the free love that went along with that. It’s a symbol that was used by British nuclear disarmament activists made from the semaphore signals for the letters N and D, later used by anti-war campaigners in the US, anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, crossing national and cultural boundaries around the world. A simple symbol conveys a lot of information – after all, a picture is worth a thousand words. 

A new flag is just another type of symbol – a visual image that should resoundly say “New Zealand” in a way that transcends language and geographic barriers. It should be something that we are proud of, something that when we carry overseas is immediately recognisable. When someone sees the flag, they should think “that’s a good country”. It should evoke some positive emotion, it should bring forth enjoyable memories, it should create some intangible sense that the country that the flag represents is of value. A new flag is as much a marketing exercise as it is about national identity.

In some ways it’s not too important what the actual symbol is, as long as it can be identified as uniquely New Zealand. That’s a good argument for why we should change the flag in the first place – the similarity to Australia’s flag does leave room for confusion, and from a branding perspective that leaves us in a dangerous place. Even with the status quo, New Zealanders do not proudly stand beside their flag – whether it’s at sporting events or when we’re selling tourism, the white fern on a black background features more commonly than our actual flag. For large swathes of the world and even large chunks of New Zealand, the existing flag evokes nothing. That’s something we need to fix.

Of course, symbols are not always independent or mutually exclusive. A flag is a place for multiple symbols to melt together, fighting for space on a limited canvas. The current flag perhaps uses symbols that do not exemplify New Zealand well, from the imperialistic vestige of the Union Jack to the naval waypoint of the Southern Cross (that we can’t even see half the time because of all the clouds). Most New Zealanders cannot relate to these symbols, and most foreigners cannot relate these symbols back to New Zealand. We’re long overdue for a rebrand.

For all the opponents who argue “why now?” the answer is that now is as good a time as any. We can postpone this indefinitely, but the longer we leave it, the longer our international image will be inhibited. We are lucky that we live in a country that doesn’t have the patriotic brainwashing of many others, and that we can even bring up the idea of changing the flag without being completely ostracised from society. The longer we leave the flag, the longer its legacy will last and the harder it will be to change. We have far better symbols than the existing flag, symbols that shout “NEW ZEALAND” to casual passers-by, symbols that New Zealanders are proud to show off to the world. Why should we continue to settle for a flag that poorly reflects who we are?

For all the opponents who argue that this process is costing too much, there’s no answer that will make them happy. Spend too little on the process and get accused of being undemocratic, spend too much and get accused of wasting public funds. How much is the right amount to spend? If we’re going through this process, it is far better to spend too much and get the flag right, than to spend too little and come up with a poor replacement. Let me be clear - we’re not going to be able to make everyone happy. That’s an unfortunate byproduct of politics and democracy, and sometimes compromises are not possible. There are indeed other important issues that need to be addressed, from poverty to housing to education. But our national identity is also similarly crucial, and getting this wrong has long lasting implications.

I don’t know what a new flag should look like. What I do know is that we have uniquely New Zealand symbols, from the Kiwi to the Silver Fern, that tell the world that New Zealanders aren’t far behind. When our young people go on their overseas experiences, I want a flag that makes the locals welcome the visitors with warm hugs. When our business people attend conferences and expos, I want a flag that makes people open up their wallets and trust that their money will be in good hands. When our team marches into the opening ceremony of the Olympic games, I want a flag that makes the crowd cheer louder than they cheer for any other country. We deserve a uniquely New Zealand flag to join our bag of symbols, a symbol that we can be proud of.

Monday 16 February 2015

University Entrance: Part VII - Conclusions

This post is part of a multi-part series on University Entrance and whether it is set at the right standard. For the previous part, click here - University Grading and Outcomes.

In this blog series, we’ve covered the following questions:
-          What is standards based testing, and how is that related to University Entrance?
-          Why was University Entrance changed?
-          Why does the government care where the UE standard is?
-          Why do secondary school students, parents and teachers care where the UE standard is?
-          Why do universities and university students care where the UE standard is?
-          Does UE accurately represent preparedness for degree-level study?

Through this discussion, we’ve uncovered some underlying themes. Perspectives towards University Entrance are informed by:
-          Accurate assessment and communication of standards
-          Macroscopic benefits to society
-          Individualistic benefits for life and the value of education
-          Resource limitations when investing in education
-          Changing cultures towards university education

Ultimately, we made some sweeping generalisations of the stakeholder groups to figure out what they think about the new University Entrance standard:
-          The government probably wants it a bit lower, but not too much lower
-          Secondary school students, parents, and teachers probably want it lower
-          Universities and university students probably want it (much) higher

At times like this, there’s an argument that pops to mind. If some people are telling you that it’s too low, and some people are telling you that it’s too high, then you’ve probably got it right. It’s the median voter model that political strategicians love to hate. As a result of this positional negotiation approach, nobody is really entirely happy. But maybe they’re happy enough.

Maybe the characterisation of the UE standard as existing on a single continuum is inaccurate, when there are separate elements targeted at resolving different problems. Maybe increasing the number of graduates or the number of students achieving NCEA is the wrong goal when the standards by which we assess students can move and fluctuate. Maybe preparedness for university is not the dominating factor that dictates whether a student is successful or not at degree-level study when there are many other factors at play. There are a lot of unknowns that we can’t truly answer, which I guess is why it becomes such a political topic; if there was an objectively correct answer there would be no argument (although that doesn’t always stop people from trying anyway).

Underlying the broad UE discussion is one about whether access to university education is a right or a privilege. There are advocates that argue that all people should have the right to try and succeed, and that locking people out of the system is inequitable and furthers systemic disadvantages. There are others that argue that university education should only be afforded to the best students who are best equipped to make use of the education, making the most efficient use of resources. In this equality vs. elitism battle, left-right groups form and ideologies dictate the flow of discussion.

I’ll end this series with the philosophical consensus that I reached with columnist Verity when we discussed this a few weeks ago. University should have higher standards and only the most capable of students should be able to enter. But this is only okay if all students have the same opportunities to learn, progress, and excel beforehand. Our society is still too unequal, too inequitable, and too unfair for us to lock people out and consign individuals to a set life path as soon as they finish high school. In a world with severe socioeconomic disadvantage, where some children start the game of life with more points than others, a high entry bar only serves the interests of the elite. So perhaps solving the University Entrance problem is much trickier than setting the standard at the right difficulty; perhaps there’s a broader societal problem to be resolved first.

University Entrance: Part VI - University Grading and Outcomes

This post is part of a multi-part series on University Entrance and whether it is set at the right standard. For the previous part, click here - Universities and University Students.

Are students with UE actually prepared enough for university?
In theory, every student who enters university should be sufficiently capable to complete a degree. This is important to understand, because if a significant proportion of students are failing university, then perhaps the university entrance standard is in the wrong place. There are plenty of reasons why a student might fail, so we shouldn’t expect a 100% pass rate, but similarly a 10% pass rate would be worrying. Unfortunately, the data that we need to answer this question is not easily available.

Luckily, last year I asked all of the universities under the Official Information Act (OIA) for pass rate data for all of their papers, and now have a(n incomplete) dataset to work with. I’ll document the OIA request and processes in an appendix post (here). I’ll note here that I did receive data from University of Otago, but it did not include class sizes so I can’t use it for the below analysis. In all of the following tables, courses with fewer than 10 students are excluded. So with data from three out of eight universities, we can have a look at the average pass rate across all papers (weighted for number of students per paper) from 2011 to 2013:
Weighted average pass rate
Pass %
Pass %
Pass %
Lincoln University
University of Auckland
Victoria University of Wellington

Around 10-15% of students failing is probably reasonable and to be expected. There are many reasons to fail papers beyond preparedness for university. However, these statistics are across all papers at the university, including in some cases Foundational or Honours papers – the picture looks different when we only consider 100-level (commonly, although not exclusively, 1st year) papers:
Weighted average pass rate
(100-level papers only)
Pass %
Pass %
Pass %
Lincoln University
University of Auckland
Victoria University of Wellington

Between 5-10% more students fail when we look at only 100-level papers. So it would be fair to say that the average first year is more likely to fail than the average student at a university, which is probably not a ground-breaking conclusion; the question is if that failure rate is too high, too low, or just right? However, rather than looking at averages, let’s look at the data another way. In each of the following graphs, only 100-level papers with at least 10 students enrolled are shown:

Note: The 0% pass rate papers at the bottom-left of the VUW graph are papers that students going on exchange are enrolled in for administrative purposes.

Beyond averages, it’s important to look at the spreads and see that there is broad variation from the mean. In particular, there are some courses with quite low pass rates - as low as 40%. Generally, failing one paper is enough to derail a degree and force students to have to take an extra semester (or more) to finish their course. Additionally, it’s important to recognise the sizes of the classes and appreciate the scope of the issue.

For example, let’s take the right-most point on the UoA graph. This course, with 287.69 EFTS enrolments, which equates to roughly 2,300 students (assuming that it’s a 15-point course), has a pass rate of 75%. One-quarter of students who take this 100-level paper fail. That’s roughly 575 students who failed that course in 2012, and are going to either repeat the course, try to do another paper instead if they’re allowed to (this one happens to be a pre-requisite for a number of majors), switch degrees, or drop out of university.

Now, with the caveat that students who fail one paper are likely to have failed other papers as well and therefore be double counted, we can look at the total number of course failures for 100-level courses at each university:
Total Number of Course Failures
(100-level papers only)
Lincoln University
University of Auckland
Victoria University of Wellington

Making the critical assumption that the universities did a perfect job in teaching their students and preparing them for their exams as best they could and that the assessment standards are at the right places [cough cough], this table shows a worryingly high number of course failures. Taking a somewhat educated stab in the dark, we might see roughly 50,000 course failures across all eight universities per year. The question then becomes this – is this number acceptable?

Why are so many students failing?
There are two main reasons why a grade distribution might look the way it does – either the students are assessed at a standard and the distribution reflects that ability, or the assessors have an expected distribution and scale the marks to meet that distribution. As described in the previous part of this series, at university it’s likely a combination of both reasons. As several of the universities reminded me in their responses to OIA requests, there are many factors that influence pass rates, and similarly there are many factors that influence failure rates, some of which are difficult to pin down. However, one of those factors is that an increasing number of students are insufficiently prepared for university.

A report by the Tertiary Education Commission in 2013 (obtained by the Listener under the OIA) stated that most students who got an “achieved” grade at university would have had a “fail” grade under the School Certificate/Bursary system. Universities said that students are reaching them under-prepared and with a poor work ethic. Dale Carnegie at Victoria University said that students were able to “game” NCEA in a way that they couldn’t at university, giving the perception that they are more capable and prepared than they actually are. It suggests that if we continue to push more and more students who have reached the stated minimum entry requirement but are ultimately unprepared for university, we can only expect the number of students who fail papers to increase.

When an unprepared student enters university, fails one or more papers, and drops out of university, we end up with a lose-lose-lose situation. The government wastes money funding education and student loans, the university wastes time and resources catering to their needs, and worst of all the student wastes time that they could have spent working and wastes money that they could have spent on more useful things.

At the end of the day it’s about whether or not young people are in the right places for them and their future. University simply may not be the right place for everyone, and pushing students towards university when it’s not the right path for them has negative consequences. This effect has been seen in the United Kingdom, where university drop-out rates have soared to the 20% range; the University and College Union secretary suggested that the source of the problem is rising fees forcing students into courses that are cheaper but “do not suit their abilities”. In the United States, 33% of freshmen (first-year) students don’t make it to second-year. A lack of self-directed and disciplined learning, an inability to move away from rote learning towards conceptual thinking, and being motivated at university for the wrong reasons (such as just to please friends and family) are identified as key factors that drive students away from completing their first year of studies. When a young person is pigeonholed into a system like a university where they really should not be, maybe we are setting them up to fail.

What does this mean for University Entrance?
The reasonably high failure rates indicate that University Entrance does not accurately reflect adequate preparedness for degree-level study. So assuming that the universities do not strictly stick to their existing expected distributions, it will be interesting to see what happens over the next couple of years with a raised UE standard. In theory, the number of failing students should decrease, and the pass rates should rise. Ultimately, this is a good thing. At that exact moment when a student finds out that they missed out on getting into university, it can be a real struggle to appreciate that. But maybe they’ve avoided wasting time and money on struggling through a university education. And of course, if they really want to get into university, there are bridging and foundational courses that were developed to ensure that the students really are prepared and capable for university life, to give them a much higher chance of success at degree-level study.

Ultimately this all ties into broader ideological arguments about whether or not every person should have access to university (or tertiary) education. It leads to arguments about equality vs. elitism, which is not necessarily an argument that can be won. There are strong advocates on both sides, and I can see the merits of both sides, and I think the answer is probably a balance somewhere inbetween. So I’m going to wimp out and let believers from both sides duke it out in the comments below if they want to.

In this section, we looked at what happens after students obtain University Entrance and actually get into university, pass rates and their associated failure rates, discussed why failure rates are so high, and touched on how UE can affect these failure rates. In the next section, we’ll try to wrap everything up.

As an aside, for an interesting read of how the “failure” problem has continued over decades, this article published in Salient (the Victoria University student magazine) in 1966 discusses why students fail university courses and how that failure that can be anticipated and avoided. One line near the beginning sticks out: “students who do well at school are not necessarily as successful at university”.

Part VII of this series - Conclusions, is available here.