PROFESSOR BARBERS VISION
New IPPR report delivers some interesting ideas about the eastward shift in power
But significant doubts remain over its conclusions
Professor Michael Barber has teamed up with the think tank the IPPR to deliver a vision of the future. Their report Oceans of Innovation says ‘We face some truly fundamental challenges that need to be overcome if the nine billion people living on Earth in 2050 are to lead fulfilled lives – the nature of the economy, the health of the environment and the avoidance of catastrophic conflict, to name just three. We also know that the pace of innovation will continue to accelerate in science and technology, posing all of us the challenge: can the search for social solutions – that seize the good from science and technology and prevent the harm – keep up?’
Key to the future is the rise of China ,the Asian Tigers and Pacific rim economies and the shift of political and economic influence eastward . But particularly China. The perceived dominance of China though puts other Pacific countries in the shade.President Obama has called China’s rise “a Sputnik moment”
The report says ‘ All this is happening in a G-zero world in which a historic transition from Atlantic global leadership to Pacific global leadership is evidently taking place. Meanwhile, the nature of global leadership itself is changing as the problems we seek to solve become more complex and less amenable to the diplomatic means of the Cold War and before.’
And what about the impact on education ? The report states ‘What is clear…is that education – deeper, broader and more universal – has a significant part to play in enabling humanity to succeed in the next half century. We need to ensure that students everywhere leave school ready to continue to learn and adapt, ready to take responsibility for their own future learning and careers, ready to innovate with and for others, and to live in turbulent, diverse cities. We need perhaps the first truly global generation; a generation of individuals rooted in their own cultures but open to the world and confident of their ability to shape it.’ Meanwhile, the report continues ’ innovations which transform societies can and will happen anywhere. Leadership, in short, will be widely dispersed and will require increasing sophistication. The report concludes ‘ It is in these circumstances that the Pacific seems destined to become the focus of global leadership. The economic and educational achievements of the Pacific region in the past 50 years are spectacular – unprecedented in fact. They lay a foundation for the next 50 years – a much better foundation than exists in many Atlantic systems – but the mix of factors that brought those achievements will not be capable of meeting the challenge ahead. Among other things, an education revolution will be required. It will need to be based not just on the growing evidence of what works, but on the capacity of the systems to innovate. It will need to unleash the leadership capacity that the next 50 years will demand. The Pacific region’s future and its capacity to become an Ocean of innovation is being shaped today, tomorrow and every day in the classrooms of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne and Valparaiso, San Francisco and Vancouver, Vladivostok and Shanghai, Hong Kong and Hanoi. On the success of those endeavours, all our futures depend.’
Heady stuff, indeed .The claim though that this is ‘unprecedented’ is debatable . If this means massive and rapid economic expansion and trade in a relatively narrow time frame, this clearly has happened before at various stages in History and in different regions.
I yield to no man in my admiration of Professor Barber and what he has contributed to education thinking and reforms in the UK, if not productivity. Focusing on Asia and in particular China, it is pretty obvious to many economists and social scientists that much of this extraordinary growth is from a pretty low base and many of these economies are simply catching up .It is also clear that most are highly centralised and ‘ extractive ‘ with both political and economic power concentrated in a small elite with little diffusion and considerable inequity. There is also precious little evidence that the region or individual countries are either prepared or willing to deliver the kind of responsible global leadership that is being looked for.
There is also evidence that they are less creative and innovative than perhaps they should be, ( some including China have anarchic attitudes to intellectual and physical property rights and patents which serves to obscure their deficiencies in innovation and creativity) and one has to ask why?.
There are of course reasons for this. Their economic and political institutions are in economists parlance ‘ extractive’, rather than inclusive and plural. This means that, rather like the Soviet Union between the 1950’s to 1980s that they can grow impressively for a period but then will struggle to sustain the growth . If you want to know the reasons for this I strongly recommend a book Why nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson. Far from seeing China as the clue to spreading prosperity (and innovation for that matter), Acemoglu and Robinson see it as yet another instance of a society rushing into a dead end. China is not, on their analysis, on course to dominate the world and become a hegemon (which seems to be the proposition underpinning Barbers analysis). Their argument is that the modern level of prosperity rests upon political and economic institutions and the relationship between them. Prosperity is generated by investment and innovation, and creative destruction (ie old industries being allowed to wither as new ones replace them to drive growth) but these are acts of faith: investors and innovators must have credible reasons to think that, if successful, they will not be plundered by the powerful. Incentives must be in place. If you believe that your property or profits are not secure because of the possible actions, or indeed inaction in certain circumstances, of government, you are not going to innovate or invest. In the Western Enlightenment, the whole logic of democratic law-making and ‘the rule of law’ was to stop laws from being applied selectively, to one groups advantage at the cost of others, so that kings couldn’t create different rules for you and for me. The Enlightenment killed off absolutism. Arbitrary action from local or national governments kills prosperity, innovation and investment, over the longer term. And in China, for example, laws are selectively applied. If you set up an enterprise perceived to be in competition with some local party boss.. or the party more generally you had better beware.
For the state to provide reassurance, two conditions have to hold: power has to be centralised and the institutions of power have to be inclusive and plural in nature. Without centralised power, there is disorder, which is anathema to investment.
China most certainly has centralised power and order in spades. But China resoundingly fails to tick the box of inclusive institutions. Acemoglu and Robinson quote a summary of the structure of Chinese political power: “The party controls the armed forces; the party controls cadres; and the party controls the news.” The party also controls the free movement of labour and more general access to information (look at their control over the internet) . Even basic information on its economy and the way it manages its currency lacks transparency. The Yuan is non-convertible. If you want to invest in China property is about the only option, and there is a property bubble. Its system of justice lacks transparency too, with show trials not uncommon, in which you know the verdict before the trial even begins. In education academic freedom and free speech is limited and there is a party office on each campus. There is no freedom of information. And the Communist Party of China has, from its very inception, actively encouraged strong anti-foreign sentiment. As one commentator put it recently ‘Fevered nationalism is one of its cornerstones’. If you dont think this is true take a look at what is happening in the dispute with Japan over some small islands, technically owned as it happens , by a Japanese businessman.
Acemoglu and Robinsons argument is that order without inclusive institutions may enable an economy to escape poverty, but will not permit the full ascent to sustained modern prosperity. They also point out that there is no natural process whereby rising prosperity in an autocracy evolves into inclusion. Rather, it is only in the interest of the self-serving elite to cede power to inclusive institutions if confronted by something even worse, namely the prospect of revolution.
I would suggest their analysis is sound. I see evidence that much of China is not sharing in its economic miracle and that growing inequities combined with rising aspirations and a highly centralised and high- handed political system is fundamentally unstable. Growth looks, in any case, to be slowing down. Look at the growing unrest too in rural areas, often concerning property disputes and heavy handed party officials. Nor do I see any evidence that China is prepared, any time soon, to provide the kind of responsible leadership on global issues that a power of its size and clout should already have been providing . So the chances of China becoming part of the ‘ Ocean of innovation’ and leadership over the coming years is at best an outside bet.. As for the other countries in the region- Malaysia and Indonesia look unlikely to fill the void, and South Korea is too pre-occupied with North Korea (and tied to the US-as is Japan). Singapore, is too small but is frequently cited as having a brilliant world class education system. Here is what one teacher who taught in Singapores system wrote in this week’s Times Education Supplement :’The intense desire to win is summed up by a Singapore word “kiasu”. Translated from Chinese Hokkien dialect, it means “fear of losing”. In this race for riches, Singaporean parents invest huge sums in private tuition to give their children a head start. This, not the state-funded system, is one of the main reasons for the country’s high performances in international league tables. The official school starting age is 6, but for many children, tuition kicks in well before then. Tuition after school hours is the norm and takes precedence over play’. Small wonder, then, that Singapore is worried about the lack of creativity in its students. Vietnam is making progress but is also too small and a late developer anyway (also relying heavily as it happens on after school private tuition).
Many Asian countries are also deeply suspicious of China and its growing territorial claims and sabre rattling, fuelled by its need for raw materials and energy, and so will probably be reluctant to accept its leadership. And as already stated the Communist party is deeply and historically anti-foreigners.
As for education, do not be fooled that Shanghai’s recent stellar performance in PISA tests represents Chinas whole education system. It doesn’t.
Certainly great strides have been made in education in Asia over the last generation but hot- housing and the need for out of school private tuition to meet the necessary standards suggests significant structural problems. Many, probably most, students are diligent and hardworking but too many also lack creativity, flair, a capacity for independent thought and some of the non-cognitive skills required to compete in the global employment market. It would be wrong to adopt a deterministic view about the inevitability of a shift in leadership and innovation eastwards. One also wonders where the cross cutting regional institutions are to help provide this coherent strategic leadership?
Certainly the East has been on the rise but its rise has to be placed firmly in perspective, with its sustainability by no means guaranteed. And crucially there is no obvious cross cutting institutional framework to enable such leadership to develop.