Are We All Out of Touch?

04/04/2012 16:22 | Updated 04 June 2012
  • Richard Pass Economist, Debate Mate mentor and Curator of TEDxGoodenoughCollege

If the West-Bradford by-election in which the dictator loving George Galloway was elected is anything to go by, it would seem that yet again, as expected, the government is "out of touch". However, this overused and increasingly vacuous phrase has become somewhat of a cliché over the last year and one that is clearly not understood by any of the major parties, at least in the eyes of the voters of Bradford-West. The rather ironic PR stunt by the two Eds, just days before Galloway's victory, in which they bought Greggs pasties together whilst rather confidently declaring the government to be "out of touch" is the latest example of this. However, whilst I agree with many of those in Bradford-West that all the major parties are to differing extents out of touch with reality, I would argue that the majority of people in the UK are equally, if not more out of touch. However, I don't mean out of touch in the usual sense of the phrase, but rather out of touch with the reality of the global economic landscape and the precariousness of our position within it.

Considering that we are in the midst of what could arguably be the most important century in Western civilisation's history given the rise of the rest and our relative decline, the lack of urgency to safeguard our position as one of the world's wealthiest nations is quite alarming. Just as we should be increasing our competiveness in the global economy and consolidating our advantages, we are experiencing a dangerous crisis of confidence caused by a concern that our economic system in its present form is unfair and no longer fit for purpose. Rather ironically, this concern materialised at the precise moment in which China became the world's second largest economy. What took Europe over 100 years to achieve has taken only one generation in China. However, this miraculous growth story occurred not through socialism but through capitalism at its purest. It is this fact, something which the 18 million Chinese being pulled out of rural poverty every year can vouch for, that makes the bigoted protestors that were outside St Paul's Cathedral earlier this year, all the more moronic and out of touch with reality.

Contrary to the Occupy movement's propaganda, the world has not changed. There has not been a global paradigm shift towards a more egalitarian form of capitalism and the sooner we realise this the better. In 2010, I spent six months at the University of Nottingham's Malaysia Campus outside Kuala Lumpur and what impacted me most was the work ethic of Malaysian students, particularly of Chinese ethnicity, in comparison to students in the UK. The typical retort is that the Chinese are grafters but not creatively minded and probably never will be in a way that we are. However, I would challenge this commonly held belief with the statistic that over the last 15 years, the number of patents being registered in China has risen 2900% to a level that is now higher than both in the UK and Germany. We are losing ground, and fast, and once we lose that edge, it may be impossible to get back. As a result, what we need in the UK is a massive investment in our best universities. Imagine what the likes of Oxford or Cambridge could do with funding that is even a fraction of what the top Ivy leagues in the US get.

We may think that our universities are a close second, but the reality is that the Ivy League is currently trouncing the Russell Group. So in a time of austerity how should we rectify this? Well, contrary to popular opinion, tuition fees have to rise. It is unavoidable and the government has made the right decision in this respect. However, where they got it wrong was cutting government funding at the same time. They should have maintained the previous levels of funding if not increased it in order to give our universities the capital they need to truly compete on a global level. Moreover, funding for bogus degrees should be scrapped in order to provide grants for degrees in Maths, Engineering and Science: If you wish to spend three years 'studying' for a BA in Celebrity Studies, do so out of your own pocket or preferably not at all. Concurrently, we also need to drastically reform our school system. At present there is unacceptable inconsistency in the quality of schools across the country, not to mention the uniform inadequacy of our exam system that leaves students woefully unprepared for what should be, the rigours of university level study. Michael Gove seems to be on the right track here, but his reforms still aren't far reaching enough. We must not forget that education is the silver bullet when it comes to social mobility and the creation of a knowledge-based economy.

In many ways what I have proposed above is the easy part. If we are truly going to ensure our future prosperity, we need to change the culture of our nation. We need to become a nation of entrepreneurs, competitors and winners. At Burlington Danes Academy School in West London where I teach for Debate Mate, all the students are ranked in every subject throughout the year, with their results posted on school corridors for everyone to see. Exam results in that school are 20% above the national average because the kids thrive off the competition. The world is an increasingly competitive place, so lets prepare the next generation for it. We also need to rediscover the virtues of past generations; hard work, self-sacrifice and the stiff upper-lip. The US gets this and as a result, is coping with the recovery better than us. In New York, people walk on average 27% faster than anywhere else in the world. Americans work harder because success is rewarded by their society. In Britain, being 'elite' in any capacity has become a source of discomfort, a dirty word. It shouldn't be. It must become a badge of pride and a source of inspiration. The nation as a whole would benefit from this.

The financial crisis showed us that short-termism is very dangerous. Whilst we have castigated the bankers for it, I wonder if we have applied the same lesson to ourselves? The fact is, over the last decade, we have lived as though tomorrow doesn't matter with profligate government and personal spending the norm. However, prosperity and true social mobility doesn't come on the cheap, it is costly. We have to make tough decisions and sacrifices now in order preserve the opportunities of future generations. Why us, you might quietly be thinking to yourself? I am sure many of the hundreds and thousands of selfless citizens who died serving our country in the Second World War thought just that, but regardless, they got on with the job and gave future generations the greatest gift of all; freedom. So instead of using this hard won freedom to pressure the government into providing more prosperity today, lets harness it in order to make it politically profitable to build the prosperity of tomorrow. It is our responsibility and we should rise to the challenge together.