Corrupted by the wheels of industry

16th March 2001 at 00:00
aising productivity is emerging as the new mantra, not that it was ever an old mantra. But as the Government presides over its happy position of extraordinary fiscal strength, the Chancellor is becoming increasingly vexed by the low absolute level of British productivity and its stubborn refusal to accelerate - which it must if the productivity gap between us and the rest of the advanced industrialised world is ever to close. New Labour wants to be seen as the party that finally cracked the age-old productivity problem.

In this climate, be sure that education is going to become a policy hot spot - and in ways that may prove counterproductive. For while it is true that a well-educated workforce and close links between universities and industry are seen worldwide as one of the essential means of raising productivity and innovation, how that translates into policy is fraught with difficulty.

For the conventional wisdom then makes the next jump; to raise productivity business must drive the education and higher education agenda. The curricula in school must be organised around what business wants; the scientific and technological research agenda in universities must correspond with what business sets as priorities; no bar must stand to the translation of ideas into commercial propositions. Every university should have its accompanying science and business park complete with close associations with venture capitalists and business incubators.

So it is that science funding for research is increasingly conditional on matching funding being made available from the private sector. And so anxious is the government both for cash and the business imprimatur of best practice that it wants the corporate sector not just to involve itself in the foundation of its new specialist schools, but to contribute to the provision of textbooks and equipment for the generality of schools.

The day is not far off when many bright students interested in science, engineering and technology will be educated in chools founded and financed by the private sector, studying courses established only after business has given its agreement and going on to study university courses customised for particular company needs. Am I alone in thinking this "vision" corrodes the concept of education and knowledge acquisition too far?

We seem to have travelled from the purist view that education is a public interest whose objectives must be insulated from particular pressures and lobbies in society to a world in which the education system is regarded as the servant of business to be colonised by business values and needs in one jump. Wealth generation is certainly pivotal to living in a just society, but not even businessmen believe that the purpose of life is business. But as the quest to raise productivity gathers pace, the pressure to make education even more subservient to business needs will intensify.

It is time for educationists - from our universities to our secondary schools - to draw a line in the sand. The task surely is to raise educational standards and intellectual rigour across the system, and central to this ambition is some conception of independence.

Of course the formulation of what is taught and scientific research agendas must keep a close eye on what business requires, but the last word must reside within the education system. Commercialise the products of research, certainly, but we must not commercialise the act of research along with its priorities - any more than we must commercialise our core curricula in our schools or allow them to become dependent on corporate giving for their books and computers. Schools are public institutions first and foremost. And universities especially must jealously guard their first responsibility - independently to teach, acquire and disseminate knowledge. Lose that and one of the fundamental building blocks of our civilisation will have perished.

Will Hutton is chief executive of the Industrial Society and author of "The State We're In"

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