Competing bid chances

I’d like to comment on the student fees business, but I can’t because I’m too cross to do it reasonably. Try Martin’s post instead. Here’s something different for Friday afternoon.

Does it make sense for two people from the same group to submit bids for funding to the same call?

(Assuming they’re for different projects – if they’re just retreads of each other then it’s at best duplication of effort, and at worst will mean the funders decide your group is so disorganised it doesn’t know what it’s doing and is not a good bet for funding. And ‘group’ might mean anything from two people who like working together on related projects up to an entire institution.)

Conventional wisdom says no – you don’t want to compete against yourselves.

But I’m not convinced. I reckon putting two bids in increases the chances that the group will get some money from the call. Probably slightly less than double the chance, but still significantly more than putting in just one of them.

(cc) snigl3t on Flickr

Let’s do some toy sums. Assume for modelling purposes that whether a bid is funded or not is purely random – say 1/6, like rolling a six on a die. (I know, I know: we all know that securing funding is absolutely nothing like a random process.) Submitting one bid gives you a 17% chance that the group gets cash.

What happens if you submit two dice – or roll two bids?

(cc) Ella's Dad on Flickr

The Wrong Answer is to assume that the probabilities add, and that the chances are therefore 34%. You can tell this is wrong, because it implies that if you submitted six bids you would definitely get funding. Anyone who’s sat miserably through seemingly endless rounds of failing to get started in Ludo knows that it’s not certain that you’ll roll a six given six tries.

The Proper Answer is to use the binomial distribution, but you can also do it by working through the possibilities. There are 6 x 6 = 36 possible combinations of the two dice. Of those, 6 have a six on the first die (6:6, 6:5, 6:4, 6:3, 6:2, 6:1), and 6 have a six on the second die. But we mustn’t double-count double-six, so there are 11 out of 36 chances to get at least one six, or about 31%.

Now, it could be that there’s no way that the funders will award two grants in one call to the same group. That would mean we can’t count double-six at all, and the chances reduce to 10 out of 36, or 28%.

That’s still way better than a single bid.

(As an aside, even if there’s the possibility of both bids being funded, the chances of at least one of the two bids failing is 35/36, or 97%. So if you do it, you can be really pretty confident that at least one person in the group is going to be disappointed.)

Obviously, if you can send the bids to different funders, so much the better. Except that on this analysis you might as well send both to both. Journals are usually pretty strict about demanding a promise that you’re not submitting substantially the same manuscript for consideration to any other journals at the same time. (I know, I know: we all know that whether a paper gets accepted or not is even less like a random process.) But the rules about submitting bids are often less strict. You need to be a bit careful that you’re not setting yourself up for conflicting commitments if you win both, of course.

(cc) MissTurner on Flickr

So: two bids are better than one. Much like heads, as my colleague Will Woods pointed out. Heads, tails … I know, I know: we all know that getting bids and papers in is absolutely nothing like tossing lots of coins and hoping for heads.

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Tuition fees and part-timers again

Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills,  has announced some tweaks to the Government’s proposals on student tuition fees.

Leaving aside the broad direction of the policy for a moment (swapping state funding for student-paid fees), one of the huge problems for the OU with the original proposals was the idea that part-time students would only be eligible for loans if they were studying at 33% intensity, equivalent to 40 credit points. As I posted, this came out of the Browne Review and was part of the original Government package. This is a huge problem for the OU because lots of our students study 30 points a year – we have lots of 30 point courses! With the original plan, we’d struggle – trying to rework lots of our existing 30-point courses at 40 pointers, dealing with students who had taken on 60 points when they only had time for 30, etc.

But Vince Cable’s written ministerial statement [.doc] says:

However, discussion with the higher education sector has highlighted that the proposed threshold of 33% intensity for full loan entitlement may inadvertently deprive a significant number of learners from receiving support.  We therefore propose that the level of intensity be reduced to 25%  –  i.e. any eligible student studying for more than a quarter of their time will be eligible for full loan support for their tuition costs.

So they’ve listened, and changed this to 30 points, which is a huge relief. As Vince Cable rather understatedly puts it:

This will better reflect the way that many part time courses are structured.

Too right it will.

Other changes to the package are welcome signs of some responsiveness to criticism: the £21,000 income threshold for paying back loans will be uprated every year in line with wages, not every five years, and the £15,000 threshold for existing loans will rise similarly.

There’s still a massive amount of uncertainty for the OU. And a massive detrimental impact on students. And very bad news for the sector as a whole.