Saturday, 12 October 2013

The UK's failing entrepreneurs


There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the media earlier this week about an  OECD survey with showed England's youth as being near the bottom of the league in literacy and numeracy.*.

There was much less furore about another damaging deficiency  revealed in a Thompson Reuters' list of the Top 100 Global Innovators, which contained not a single British name.  As might be expected the go-getting Americans  took 45 of the places.  More surprisingly the top Europeans, with no fewer than 12 entries, were the mollycoddled, highly taxed, dirigiste French.  Japan, Canada, Sweden, Germany, South Korea, the Netherlands,Switzerland  and Taiwan also had entries.

So much for the low tax deregulated regime which, according to David Cameron, is necessary  to release the energies of our own entrepreneurs.

Of  course the truth is that Britain's entrepreneurs have for almost a century (some would say longer) been more interested in making a quick buck on the financial markets than in long term innovation and development.  According to Sean Farrell in the Guardian (08/10/13) French companies spend more than half as much again as British companies on Research and Development.

In the same week the award of the Nobel Prize to Professor Peter Higgs of Higgs' Boson fame shows that our theoretical scientists remain as innovative and adventurous as ever.  A former pupil of mine who went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, told me that the then Master, in his welcome address, hammered away at the fact that alumni of that single college had won more Nobel Prizes than the whole of France.

What remains sadly true is that our businessmen, so quick to criticise our education system,  seem incapable of taking the bright ideas it produces  and turning them into practical and profitable business ventures.

*As it happens I don't take these findings too seriously.  In the late 80s there was an alarmist report that British school children lagged behind their German, French and Japanese contemporaries in mathematics. Very specifically, at 14 our bottom 40% were a full two years behind their German counterparts. I was seconded at the time to study mathematics education at a local university. As my dissertation I chose to examine these claims and found they were based on very dubious extrapolations of the results of some questionable tests.  Genuine international comparisons are extremely difficult.

For what it's worth the Americans came bottom.  It has been suggested that Britain's problem lies not only with our schools, but also in the follow-up work after school.  In particular the UK's employers come low on the list of those providing  training and re-training for their staff.  And, of course, it is probably no co-incidence that the countries at the the bottom of the list are the most unequal, and at the top the more equal.  See Wilkinson and Picket's academic study of this correlation.


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