The Future Part 2: Overseas Competition

April 29, 2012
They took Our Jobs, posted with vodpod

This is the second of a series of posts  looking at attempts to use theories about the future to justify removing or downgrading the amount of knowledge taught. The first part can be found here.

A frequent theme of attempts to justify dumbing-down is the idea that competition from other countries requires a change to the curriculum.

According to Caroline Walters, the “director of People and Policy” at BT:

[China] is just one of the emerging countries -I would say emerged countries – who have a phenomenal capability, and that is who our education system is competing with. Now we already have  -there was a survey, I can’t remember whether it was the end of last week or even yesterday, but it was fairly, very recent in fact where employers are already saying that they prefer graduates from China and India, Latin American countries, not because of their educational prowess but because of the characteristics that they have; they hunger to get on; their creativity and innovation; their energy; characteristics we don’t always see in UK graduates for example. So the rising skills and aspirations of those major countries are driving this new global economy and that means in the UK we are going to have to continually drive up the value chain.

And so:

…if we don’t create populations who are self-learning, who want to learn, we are going to be in real problem because we are moving into very fast-paced change within business and within society generally.

According to Shift Happens UK:

Sometimes size does matter. If you’re one in a million in China, there are 1,300 people just like you. In India, there are 1,100 people just like you. The 5% of the population in China with the highest IQs is greater than the total population of the UK. In India, it’s the top 7%. Translation for teachers: they have more gifted and talented students than we have students. China will soon become the number one English-speaking country in the world.

A terrifying thought isn’t it? Britain may have to compete against China and India for investment and market-share. But this only leads a sensible person to ask “how is this new?” The global economy may well see industries grow, shrink or even die out, however, one of the most basic facts of British history is the extent to which the British economy has been open to trade with the world for centuries. There is nothing new about a globalised economy. During a bout of gloablisation mania in the 1990s Hirst et al (1996) observed:

If we interpret globalisation to mean an open international economy with large and growing flows of trade and capital investment between countries, then the answer to the question [Is globalisation new?] is clearly negative. The international economy has a complex history of relative openness and closure, since a truly integrated world trading system was created in the second half of the nineteenth century. Submarine telegraph from the 1860s onwards connected inter-continental markets. They made possible day-to-day trading and price –making across thousands of miles, a far greater innovation than the advent of electronic trading today. Chicago and London, Melbourne and Manchester were linked in close to real time. Bond markets also became closely inter-connected, and large-scale international lending, both portfolio and direct investment – grew rapidly during this period.

They went on to describe various times of high and low global trade throughout the last 200 years and to conclud that:

The more naïve advocates of rapid and recent ‘globalisation’ have short memories and tend to see the international economy in post 1973 terms. A longer perspective is sobering, not merely for what it reveals about the pre-1914 world economy, but because it shows how volatile, how subject to conjuncture change and how vulnerable to the effects of international conflict the international  economy is. No major regime has lasted more than 30-40 years and periods of considerable openness and growth have been replaced by closure and decline. It would be naïve, therefore, to project current trends towards openness and integration forward as if they are inevitable or irreversible.


Nevertheless, I don’t want to downplay the idea that for any individual industry, overseas competition might be a huge threat, just as overseas trade might be a huge opportunity. Nor do I want to suggest that there are no arguments that government policy should reflect those dangers (and those opportunities). What is simply not credible, however, is that the skills we need to compete involve less academic knowledge than we currently teach. Even assuming that global trade and investment were to increase indefinitely, an international economy alone is no justification for a low content curriculum. International trade seems to call out for knowledge of languages, history and geography as an appropriate background for dealing with people from other countries and cultures. The requirements of commerce call out for a higher level of numeracy and mathematical knowledge. Finally, unless it is assumed that manufacturing is a lost cause, scientific knowledge is also likely to be at a premium. This is not a skills-based curriculum, it is nineteenth century curriculum; unsurprisingly given that the nineteenth century was a time when Britain was heavily committed to an overseas empire and overseas trade.

The argument that the global economy requires less traditional skills seems to depend on the idea that we cannot hope to compete in industries requiring traditional academic knowledge. When the UK version of “Shift Happens“ declares that China has “more gifted and talented students than we have students” the implication is that we cannot compete on the basis of traditional academic skills against a country with so many bright people. There are two obvious reasons to doubt this. Firstly, the same argument would apply to any alternative set of skills. We are also outnumbered by the most creative 5% of the population of China; the most resilient 5%; the 5% with the best social skills, and the 5% who are most inclined to independent learning. There is simply not an obvious set of skills that are relevant to competing against overseas competition. The developing world is often thought of as being unbeatable in manufacturing, but we have also seen in recent years the growth of both a customer services (call-centre) industry and a software development industry in India. There seems to be no clearly defined limit to what skills can, or cannot, be moved overseas.

Secondly, it is a long established result of economic theory that in order to benefit in trade one does not need to be more productive than one’s trading partners in any industry at all. There are benefits to specialisation and trade even with nations who have all the advantages, all you need to benefit through specialisation and trade is to be more productive in one of your industries than in another. There is no economic case to be made for dumbing-down; no trade benefits to ignorance, no sign that only are least intellectual producers can compete internationally. There is simply an argument based on fear, used in the absences of a rational case for reducing knowledge.



Hirst, Paul and Thompson, Grahame, “Globalisation, Ten Frequently Asked Questions and Some Surprising Answers”,  Soundings, Issue 4 Autumn 1996

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  1. Perhaps we could have jobs manufacturing the giant paperclips that their kids are too constrained to imagine?

  2. Recent research says people are more creative after a few alcoholic beverages. I’m pretty sure after a bottle of vodka I could imagine millions of things to do with a giant paper clip…..

    So what Shift happens is really saying is that we want out students to think like drunks….

    Fat fonzi

  3. I suspect the 5% statement is correct too.. “Top 5% IQ” usually means in the top 5% of the range of scores the IQ test can potentially deliver, not in the top 5% of the population and certainly not in the top 5% of an arbitrarily selected population (such as “Chinese”). By that flawed logic, if you take a random 20 people and put them in a room, someone in that room will be gifted and talented, because they will be the smartest of the 20 and thus in the “top 5%”. In practice far less than 5% of the population are in the top 5% of intelligence.

    • I don’t think this is right. IQ scores are not raw marks on a test; test scores are deliberately adjusted to fit a normal distribution with mean 100, and standard deviation 15. It would be very odd for an IQ in the top 5% to mean anything other than in the top 5% for the (appropriate) population.

  4. I think , perhaps, that you may be taking all this stuff a bit too seriously. Caroline Walters is just spouting this guff to tread water in the top management bubble. Next week some other trendy subject will arise that, no doubt, some sycophant will spot and write it up for her.
    Remember quality? Well that really has disappeared without trace if a recent experience with BT is typical, and they all said it wasn’t a passing fad. A relative who rents a phone and ADSL line from BT recently contacted me, knowing that I have worked for BT, to assist him in getting a noisy line fault rectified. BT has had two shots at it and it is no better. I attempted to progress the problem by ringing the call centre number given. After a very long delay -more that ten minutes- I received an answer from, oh dear, what transpired to be an Indian call centre. They point blank refused to accept there was a fault saying the line tested Ok and said the only way I could proceed was to speak to his supervisor who still hadn’t answered after 10 minutes. I have written a letter to BT on behalf of my relative but I’m not holding my breath. Walters really has not got a clue as to what is going on at the coal face.

  5. One thing that occurred to me… these ‘scary’ Chinese and Indian gifted and talented people… are they being taught ‘teamwork’, and ‘creativity’ and ‘adaptability’ in an all-singing, all-dancing skills-based curriculum? Or, do you think, are they having what we would regard as a traditional subject based education. I have an inkling which one it is…

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