Skills for the world of the future: AI, Big Data, Robotics etc.

Over the past few weeks we have had much hype of the effect of Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Robotics on the world of work and the subjects we should be teaching our chidren. Almost exactly 35 years ago, Donald Michie, the “father” of research into machine intelligence, was given a free hand to bring together scientists, academic and politicians to speak on artificial intelligence, expert systems, robotics, and the future of work, education and medicine at the annual Sperry Seminar for the UK Technical Press. The speakers included Ed Feigenbaum, the father of “expert systems”, Walter Bodmer,  later to launch the human genome project (still by far the worlds biggest “Big Data” project) and Robert McGhee the pioneer of walking machines.  The results were published in 1983 as”Intelligent Systems – the unprecedented opportunity “.

Having been responsible for selling the “Micros in Schools” programme to government, I was given the task of looking at the impact on educational values and priorities. I concluded that throwing money at the system would delay the fundamental changes needed. I was subsequently asked to reformat the paper as a political pamphlet. This was published as Learning for Change, which sold out. But the messages were ignored (other than by a Jesuit college which still had the analysis embedded them in its teachings over a decade later).

A decade of so later Government began to baulk t the bottomless pit of University tuition fees and accommodation costs. It began transferring the burden to parents and students, persuading school-leavers to mortgage their futures.  Fast forward another 20 years and the futurology of 1982 (AI, Big Data, Robotics, globally teleconferenced research and packaged on-line education and training programmes etc.) is becoming the present. Large parts of the Ponzi Scheme at the heart of UK Higher Education Policy are now irrelevant, not just expensive.  In my previous blog, I discussed part of the way forward but we should not under-estimate the scale of change needed. It will also be fought tooth and nail by those seeking to preserve academic lifestyles at the expense of the young (as opposed to looking to the mature learning market.

The political recommendations in Learning for Change have been overtaken by events but the original analysis, as edited by Donald Michie and Jean Hayes for publication, has not:

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Training for Multi-Career Lives – Philip Virgo: National Computing Centre

Learning for Change: Training, Retraining and Lifelong Education For Multi-Career Lives


Most of the basic skills needed over the next hundred years can be predicted with reasonable certainty but many of the precise trades and professions cannot. “Age-Related Careers” is an employment strategy which can handle such uncertainty. Fundamental changes to the education system are necessary. Information Technology makes these possible at economic cost. Encouragement and favourable publicity are more effective weapons of persuasion than coercion but many actions at all levels are needed if the inability of our education system to cope with change is not to deny us the benefits which the new technology is bringing to other societies.


Some time ago I heard Ian Lloyd say that our greatest requirement from the so-called Microelectronics Revolution was automated abattoirs for sacred cows. Nowhere is the slaughter of sacred cows more necessary than in our education system. Its inability to cope with change must not deny us the benefits which new technology is bringing to other societies. I shall begin with some comments on the role of our education system in the past, and how it must adapt if we are to have any worthwile future.

We can predict with reasonable certainty most of the basic skills we are going to need over the next hundred years or so. Where we cannot we need a strategy to handle uncertainty. 3I will propose the strategy of “Age-Related Careers” and will then discuss some of the fundamental institutional changes that will be necessary and how the new technologies can help.

In conclusion, I will identify some of the obstacles we must overcome on the way and how those in the information industry can help.

  1. The Role of the Educational System

200 years ago was the take-off period for Britain’s first industrial revolution: the take-off that transformed England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland from an economic condition akin to that of modern India, famines and all, to one akin to that of Hong Kong today.

There may be extremes of poverty in Hong Kong but few actually die of starvation. The last English famine in which whole villages died was in the middle of the eighteenth century. The last Scottish famine was in the 1820s.

There are many myths about the consequences of that revolution but few about its causes and course.

An ambitious and underprivileged (but also undertaxed) class of entrepreneurs in an unregulated, unplanned environment, sought to buy social respectability by making money out of providing the materials and munitions to enable Britain to fight each of its continental neighbours in turn. In doing so they managed to create a forty year long investment led boom, ending only with the post Napoleonic war slump in the 1820s. Then another long boom followed as Railway mania gripped the country, fostered by the same group.

We have read much about the evils of nineteenth century education: it is worth thinking about the education system in the eighteenth century, the education of the men who made the first industrial revolution. Since the Royal Navy was the only service fit for a gentleman of courage (the Army was discredited as a continental-style threat to civil liberties), and since the specialist Naval academies of the nineteenth century had yet to be founded, elementary engineering and scientific mathematics ranked higher than Latin and Greek in the education of a gentleman. Meanwhile, the Quakers and Non-Conformists of the Midlands and North West, excluded from grammar schools and universities ran more Trade, Commerce and Artisan schools than the rest of Europe added together. The poor condition of the English grammar schools and universities was no hindrance since only clergymen looked to them for inspiration.

In the nineteenth century, with the founding of Naval Academies, religious tolerance and the new found respectability of Army and Empire, the picture changed dramatically. The children and grandchildren of the men who made the first Industrial Revolution could enjoy the clergyman’s education of Latin, Greek, and theology in reformed grammar schools and universities. Trade, commerce and engineering were relegated to the ragged aspirants of the Workers Educational Association despite the complaints of boring foreigners, like Prince Albert.

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe, with no world-wide Empire to administer and having to innovate rather than live off past innovation, learned from the Quakers and the Non-Conformists and made no such mistakes. Thus the seeds of our century-long decline were sown in the classrooms of Dr.  Arnold’s Rugby rather than on the playing fields of Eton.

Now that we have spent our inheritance and must once more earn a living we can do a lot worse than to look again at the institutions of the eighteenth century. We must recognise that education should not be a joy for the few and a trial of youth for the many but a lifelong experience for all, as and when the opportunity arises. The young should acquire a desire and an ambition to “improve” themselves and should associate learning with reward, not with examination trauma.

The men of the late eighteenth century shared many of our problems. They knew the world was about to change but didn’t know in which direction, unemployed anarchic bloodshed alternating with tyranny as in France or hard working republican virtue as in America. Some thought the steam engine would usher in an age of leisure (or mass unemployment), others were confident that work might change (from brawn to brain, maybe), but that it would still be necessary and that the basic skills needed were likely to be much the same.

The latter were right. Two centuries later we are still looking forward to an age of leisure. I venture to predict that in two hundred years our descendants will still be looking. Meanwhile, it is our duty to do at least as well, and preferably better, than our ancestors in preparing for change.

  1. Future Skill Requirements

We will still have to work for a living but the nature of that work is likely to change and we cannot predict many of the changes with much certainty.

We can no longer afford to spend one or two decades of detailed preparation for a single life-long career progression. Instead we should aim, like our ancestors, to impart those basic skills almost certain to be in continuous demand and to build a system capable of responding rapidly to change, and disseminating new skills to any age group when necessary.

This is all the more important since our education systems appear incapable of supplying the skills currently in demand, let alone new ones. Where we can predict major industries, such as computer assisted video entertainment and learning, mass produced electronics based medical aids, biotechnology and telematics, we, unlike the Japanese, are incapable of delivering the appropriate career preparation or retraining. We even appear to have lost the ability to impart the basic commercial skills necessary to create fast growing new businesses. If we do not change our educational systems to produce generations capable of competing with the Japanese, the Germans and the Americans, we will lose out on the millions of wealth creating jobs potentially available. In consequence, we won’t have the resources to support the idle decline, like that of nineteenth century Spain, that will be our lot.

For some of the new industries we can specify the technician training requirements in fair detail: for video they are akin to film production on a very tight budget and time schedule, for biotechnology they are a cross between process engineering and brewing real ale.

But our training facilities are far too thin on the ground. We need packaged course material for mass delivery but no commercial organisation will invest money in developing such material when it will be pirated as soon as it is supplied. Copyright reform is essential.

We can also list the basic skills that everyone will need for the office, factory and home of the future.

In the office of the future with its video workstations, electronic filing systems and telecommunications links, technical literacy and dexterity will, of course, be necessary. However, the ability to think clearly and express oneself accurately and concisely, to get sensible answers from the all-embracing information databases, will be even more important. The GIGO principle, (garbage in leads to garbage out), has its counterpart in information science where a woolly question will produce a meaningless flood of irrelevant data. The problem with modern management is already too much rather than too little information and computers don’t often help. If the West Yorkshire police had had computerised information systems, they might still be looking for the Yorkshire Ripper. The uniformed policemen who finally caught him would have been too busy helping administer the database to leave the police station.

Without old fashioned linguistic skills, as tested in a “comprehension” exercise, and without the ability to frame an intelligent question and to recognise a sensible answer, the new Information Technology can all too often make things worse rather than better.

Similarly, the ability of the technology to perform instant statistical analyses will make the knowledge of what those statistical analyses mean, if anything, essential. However, to Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic we need to add three new skills:

  • The first is the concept of simulation, beginning with the concept of a computer model analogous to the real world in the way that a meccano crane or a model railway is to real things, but leading to the understanding of how computer models can be run backwards, from the desired ends to identify and test the logic, assumptions and premisses which lead to that end. This may well have a dramatic effect on the way we think since in many modelling exercises, the significant variables turn out to be unmeasurable, or based on hunches, value judgments or even moral principles where mere logic is of limited value: for example, the so-called “social” costs which befuddle public enquiries and motorway or airport planning exercises.
  • The second new skill is problem structuring and solving, and in particular group problem solving of the kind used by the class “cheat”, who knows which classmate’s homework to copy in which subject. By definition, this skill is selected against in our educational system and thus its most skilled practitioners frequently end up working against society as rebels, criminals or parasites rather than in the key management posts which they should occupy.
  • Thorough and imaginative approaches to group problem identification, structuring and solving are going to be essential in the factory of the future where quality control is going to be one of the main occupations. Ensuring that complex computer controlled products are functioning correctly, and that the specification of the control program is adequate under all circumstances and not dangerously inadequate under even the most unlikely circumstances, may well become the most labour intensive part of the production process.

Outside the factory the maintenance men who are to service the multiplicity of devices from automatic doors and light sensitive blinds, to mass-produced powered limbs and living aids for the elderly and rheumatic, will need similar skills since remote or automatic fault diagnosis will often be inadequate.

Even in modern Britain with the lowest proportion of self-employed and small business proprietors of any country outside the Communist block, the basic commercial skills of running a business are needed by more than one in eight of the population. If one accepts the thesis that most of the new jobs are going to be created in small businesses, private sector personal services and the informal economy, and that in the future more than one in four of the population will, at some time in their lives run their own business, a revival of “commercial” and “business” studies as subjects to be taught to all, in school, is necessary. Their current absence from the curriculum condemns the school leaver to servitude, unemployment or, at best, several wasted years learning for himself what he should have been taught at school. If education is truly a preparation for life, their absence cannot be defended outside a communist society.

The impact of technology on the personal service jobs, from street cleaning to street walking, will be negligible. Gardeners, window cleaners, plumbers, cooks and so on will be needed just as now.

At the other end of society, however, the changes may well be traumatic as expert systems render obsolete the book-learning and machine-like logical skills of most lawyers, accountants and consultants.

The robot that can sweep a factory floor or weed a garden is at least a century off. But most of the work of the Inland Revenue, most administrative accountancy, the routine conveyancing that keeps most solicitors in business, the complex diagnoses that elevate the Harley Street consultant above the local general practitioner, can already be done faster and more accurately by computer. In twenty years the local tax office will give an instant response to your query and the general practitioner will no longer refer you to the hospital for analyses and diagnoses but will do them himself with the aid of his surgery expert systems backed by links to national epidemiological and other databases.

There will be a great many skilled professionals checking the systems and equipment used but status will pass to the man doing the job that no mere machine can do. Giving an enema to an incontinent cripple will be a more valued task than diagnosing some rare cancer or tropical fever – “the simple application of memory and logic which any properly programmed computer can do”.

The possession of book-learning or logical reasoning ability will lose status just as literacy did when everyone could read and write. The human touches of sympathy and creativity will be the hallmark of the high status job.

The trauma of this reversal in our hierarchy of status cannot be under-estimated. At one fell swoop it removes the rationale behind most of our educational values, with their emphasis on memorising large quantities of verbal information, from irregular verbs to the naming of parts, the ability to follow complicated logical processes, quote obscure documents or recognise unusual sets of symptoms. It removes the main justification for the examination treadmill to which we chain our adolescent youth in a set of puberty rites crueler than those of primitive Africa. At least in Africa they don’t label any of the participants as failures!

Rather than develop the learning skills of the few, we must train those of the many so that they can use the artificial intelligence and memory aids that will be available for all. Thus machines will take over the menial logic and memory tasks, leaving us humans with the interesting problems of judgment and the many interpersonal and service tasks which they may aid but cannot take over.

These changes are going to take time, certainly decades, possibly even centuries. But they are going to be fundamental and many new trades, skills and professions are going to be required on the way. However, unless we recognise and accept the transience of many of these new trades, we are going to condemn future generations to the fate of the handloom weavers. The handloom weavers were called into existence by the availability of cheap yarn, but were reluctant or unable to change trade when machine weaving became practicable. Their fate gives a stark lesson that a single career may not be enough in an age of fundamental structural evolution.

The handloom weavers’ modern counterparts could well be the commercial programmers and analysts of today. Called into existence by the availability of expensive computers which had to be used more efficiently, they may well be reluctant or unable to change trade when packaged software on cheap computers has made their particular branch of computing skills redundant.

  1. Age Related Careers?

Given the uncertainty as to the duration of requirement for specific trades, should we not prepare our school leavers for those jobs known to be in current – but possibly temporary – demand, while reserving certain careers, where demand is likely to be constant, for older generations who, because of family commitments, are no longer so mobile, who may take longer to retrain and who must therefore plan further ahead?

— Flexibility for the young

15-30 Mobility with Transient Skills

— Security for the family

30-50 Executive/Managerial

— Academe for the mature

50-80 Education/Social Service

Thus the school leavers would be prepared for the currently fashionable jobs and for those jobs requiring rapid learning or geographic mobility. As the individuals mature and seek to settle down they would retrain for a more stable executive or managerial career. Social careers, such as education or caring for others would be reserved for those with experience of all the vicissitudes of life.

Make no mistake, the very concept of a multi-career life, let alone the suggestions of age related careers, is at variance with our trades union, social security and pension structures, let alone our educational systems.  It is also incompatible with the Graeco-Roman ideal of Plato’s Republic of one education for one career for life.

It is, however, similar to the way many non-European societies, including Japan, are organised, with their veneration of the growing wisdom of age, and the tasks suitable for different age groups.

Rather than expound analogies and principles I will attempt to describe the careers of an average school leaver of 1990.

John Dent, cousin of Arthur Dent, has no academic interests. On a school project in Wales he once had to be manhandled out of a museum at closing time, but that one symptom of deviant enthusiasm was quickly cured. He is reasonably dextrous, likes making things in the engineering workshop and crashing other people’s computer systems.

In his last year at school he does a course on Numerical Control Programming which includes part-time work in a local engineering company which he joins as a trainee robogate supervisor.

In his spare time he is active in the local CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) branch, gets interested in the mechanics of brewing and when the demand for robogate supervisors tails off and salaries start to lag, takes a Biotechnology Production course at the local tech., in his mid twenties. He fails to get a job in a real ale brewery and settles for a metal recycling plant near Scunthorpe rather than work for a synthetic beer factory.

In his late twenties he gets married, stops drinking and starts studying Production Control and Finance on an Open Tech course. It’s heavy going, and he doesn’t qualify till his mid-thirties, when he manages to get a job as deputy production controller of a cattle feed plant in Cheshire. He has worked his way up to production manager when he realises just before his 45th birthday that the plant will have to close because it cannot be adapted to meet the latest pollution control standards.

Unwilling to move, he takes a teacher training course and secures a part-time post at the local school teaching basic numeracy and industrial skills. He is elected to the local council, and with his attendance money and his wife’s earnings as a paramedic running the body scanners in the local Group Practice combined Health Centre, operating theatre and cottage hospital, he decides not to take another full-time job. In the school holidays he takes to studying Welsh History and at 55 graduates in Celtic Studies from the Open University of North Wales. At 60, when their last child leaves home, he and his wife buy a derelict hill farm in mid-Wales and he opens a holiday centre specialising in the development of the Welsh Longbow, in use and in literature.

Note that John retrains four times, none of them at his employer’s expense because each time he is going into a very different career; each time, partly because he is getting older and has more family commitments, it takes him longer, until his final academic, cum leisure cum retirement post. Note also that after his youthful job mobility, at 45 he settles for a collection of part-time sources of income, including teaching and social cum political activity, rather than disrupt his family life and move again.

This kind of multi-career life also requires major changes to our trades union structures, pension schemes and social security schemes to permit multiple job changes without loss of pension rights and to permit part-time work as a norm.

  1. Institutional Changes Needed

Unacademic John Dent spends more time in the educational system, both for business and for pleasure, after he has left school than even today’s academic high flyers. Therefore, unlike current and past generations of school leavers, he must enjoy it. One cannot drag London’s adult East Enders over the threshold of anything that looks like a school but house the establishment in a Portakabin or a Shack, give it a different name and ethos, and disassociate it from memories of pain and boredom, and they are often as eager as any child to learn new skills.

It is essential that the initial educational experience should be such that the student learns how to learn in a way that makes him associate education with reward and relevance, while at the same time he acquires the basic skills essential to all career structures.

Given that the bulk of the new jobs are being created in small businesses with neither the time nor the money to train school leavers in changing skills, and given that the schools have ten years of the individual’s best learning years, the school leaver should already have acquired most of the vocational skills and training necessary for his first career; a first career which is likely to begin at 16 or 17 and to involve a job in close proximity to the school. Therefore, much closer links between schools and local businesses, are necessary.

Whether these are fostered by cross secondments, use of part-time industrial staff for vocational training in schools, the recruitment only of teachers with outside work experience or sandwich courses for children, the current isolation has to be broken down.

Retraining at reasonable cost, social cost as well as economic cost, needs to be available at any stage of life, independent of the desires, means or needs of the current employers.

The kind of availability needed is possibly illustrated by the fate of an American steel company which gave notice of closure in a town where there was little alternative work for steel-workers. The sellers of retraining courses descended on the town like locusts and, although the company rescinded the closure notice, two years later it had to close because of shortage of labour. The workers had taken the message, retrained at their own expense and left for better, more secure, jobs.

We should not concentrate resources on those who are easiest to train, like the teenagers, at the cost of throwing later generations on the scrap heap, nor should we squander resources on the untrainable or those who wish to acquire skills not in demand, at someone else’s expense. When the taxpayers’ money is to be spent, priority should be given to retraining taxpayers or training their children for jobs in known demand. Exotic or esoteric subjects should be studied at private expense, not public.

A major shift in resources away from the 14 to 21 examination treadmill will be required as well as a massive shift from non-vocational to vocational education and from “offering” courses to meeting demands. Non-vocational education will largely become a leisure activity paid for by mature students out of past earnings rather than a middle class puberty rite at taxpayers’ expense.

For many subjects the student age range will rise from under 21 to over 60. Perhaps we should be looking to convert redundant Universities to Recreation and Leisure Schools or Industrial Training Centres depending on their location and facilities. It may well be that in twenty years’ time we will again have in Britain a dozen or so proper research-based endowment funded Universities and, hopefully, at least a dozen first class colleges or institutes of advanced technology funded largely by industry.

Second-rate institutions where University status and academic freedom have too often been an excuse for woolly thinking, inefficiency and futility will no longer be supported with public money. Good researchers and funding will be concentrated in centres of excellence. Competent teachers will be paid more to train for specific professional skills in Polytechnics and Colleges of Further Education, possibly linked in an Open Tech-like framework. The concept of the University as a home of learning and research for young and old alike, rather than an imitation polytechnic for adolescents, without the polytechnic discipline of defined educational objectives, will reign again.

Maybe that is a pipedream; however, a revolution in teaching techniques will certainly be required since current methods rely too heavily on the in-grained awe and academic docility of examination broken youth for them to work with the cynical maturity of the adult trainee. This together with the emphasis on learning how to learn, rather than mastery of any particular subject matter, may well lead to teaching and lecturing in most subjects being reserved as a second or third career so that mature students are taught by their peers. Given the use of packaged material, mastery of the subject will be less important than understanding of the learning experience, the ability to manage the learning environment and to motivate the student by sympathy, guidance and understanding – those attributes which the expert in his own subject has all too often lost. Teacher centred methods must be replaced by learner centred methods.

  1. How can the New Technologies help to meet this Fundamental Challenge?

At the simplest level, audio visual techniques enable the best lecturer or demonstrator to address an audience of thousands rather than a few dozen. A good video is very much more effective than an average teacher in one-way communication such as a lecture.

Freed from the pressure to prepare material to deliver to a timetable, the teacher can act as a tutor rather than a lecturer, advising which sources of information the individual student would find most helpful or relevant: videos, books, computer based simulators, and so on.

The simulations which are at the heart of many Computer Aided learning packages appear to improve greatly the motivation of students of all types. Good packages speed the assimilation of knowledge and understanding, facilitate the practice of techniques and of recall. They can also make formal examinations and the associated trauma unnecessary by testing the student’s understanding at each stage before he can move onto the next. Thus at the end of a CAL packaged course, each student has reached the same level of understanding, some more quickly than others. Packages enable the teacher to concentrate on his students as individuals, especially on their interpersonal abilities: for example, in group situations where the computer has set a task which requires a number of students to work in concert. The computer can be left to manage the task while the teacher concentrates on developing those skills and qualities which the computer cannot, such as the consideration of the feelings, motives and abilities of other people.

Learning can also take place at the student’s convenience; his choice of time, place and pace. Thus the part-time student can study the theory of genetic engineering in the Village School by night, using video and simulation packages with teleconference facilities for tutorials, while the pregnant teenager does remedial mathematics and babycare at home with a visiting teacher to keep up her morale.

Our current education system is “schooled” into subject areas, while life is not. The ability of the expert system to manage complexity makes it ideal for controlling multidisciplinary study projects crossing subject boundaries in a way which few teachers have the ability or knowledge to match. An example might be the complex inter-actions between economic growth, nutrition standards, mortality, mores and birth rates in the first industrial revolution. The medical ignorance of most historians, the cavalier way in which theoretical economists regard most historical evidence, the woolly thinking of most sociologists, and the lack of interest of most medical men, make this an area abounding in myth and nonsense. Such packages could be invaluable in broadening the outlook of our narrow specialists in both teaching and research.

Packages are labour intensive to specify and prepare and require much planning and discipline to assemble and test. However, two years and a million or so pounds to assemble quality packages which can then be mass produced on discs or transmitted over the air or down phone lines, is a lot faster and cheaper than retraining several thousand teachers over a decade or two. The comprehensive indexing of packages, learning and research should enable duplicated effort to be avoided, except when teams are sufficiently confident of the market need and their own competence to compete deliberately.

Given the PhD rat race and the scramble to publish, the effects of worldwide indexing and updating and the exchange of information over teleconference links could be interesting.  Will it actually lead to the free interchange of knowledge for the benefit of all, with an end to the desperate race to publish first in a prestige journal, leaving the losers to save face with duplicated variations and glosses in a plethora of obscure publications?  Probably not, unless reinforced by the turning off the tap of taxpayers’ monies, or the fear of public ridicule which can sometimes shame the most obstinate into changing their ways.

  1. Problems You Can Help Overcome?

The Japanese, like the Americans under Kennedy or our 0Victorian ancestors, succeed because they think they can. We are failing because we think we will. We do not suffer from lack of resources, we suffer from the fragmentation of those resources we have, the refusal to consider solutions we did not invent for ourselves, bureaucratic procedures and institutions which do not believe they can cope with change, an idiosyncratic examination system which reinforces the status quo and recruiters who have, for all too human reasons, given up trying to influence the systems they have to work with.

In all these areas the fear of public ridicule can be a potent weapon. Fear of the public exposure of wasted resources can often persuade a Local Authority to bring together Further Education, Polytechnic and School Resources to solve common problems in situations where rational arguments gets bogged down in red tape. The “Not Invented Here” syndrome can equally be countered in a time of financial stringency by forcing the public cost-justification of each attempt to re-invent the wheel.

Institutional resistance is harder to overcome; of course, an Authority with a large Architects Department and a militant bunch of maintenance men and caretakers will seek to spend more on buildings than on books or teaching aids.  Or course teachers will seek to impart to others the subjects they know. Of course, examiners will seek to preserve the status quo.

Consumer revolt, whether on the part of parents, taxpayer, student or recruiter, is one weapon capable of over-coming institutional resistance in the long run. But it can be a very wasteful mechanism. Waiting for Encylopaedia Britannica or Time-Life to fill the gap with packages sold direct to parents or mature students is not the best way, unless we really believe that American methods are so superior that we cannot catch up.

Subversion is likely to be far more efficient. Demonstrating to the teachers that copying material produced elsewhere, perhaps even paying copyright fees, that prostituting academic freedom in return for gifts of equipment, books and visits, that adopting commercial rather than academic norms can greatly ease their problems, will encourage them to change the system from within. Demonstrating that interesting relevant packages can make a class of unacademic delinquents an acceptable challenge rather than a futile trial of strength will encourage the teachers to fight the waste of resources on bricks and mortar, and get the money spent on teaching aids, and material instead.

In Japan the Universities are showered with gifts of money and equipment by employers, not because they value University research – they do not – but because they want recruits trained to their standards. Our employers must adopt similar tactics, not just in dealing with Universities but with schools and colleges at all levels. Because of the difficulties on both sides, and the cultural gulf that exists, they need all the encouragement they can get through publicity and praise for successful case studies of co-operation (as in the Japanese press); case studies which emphasise the direct selfish benefits to both parties as much as the long term benefits for the students. The Marconi-sponsored MSc course at Southampton is one example. I am sure Sperry can cite examples in which they have taken a similar lead.

Finally, recruiters who buck the system and retest applicants or select for deviance, rejecting the validity of examination results or who offer inflation adjusted pension transfer rights or payments to independent pension schemes, should receive praise and publicity for their initiative in helping to change the system. The docility of the recruiters merely serves to reinforce the complacency of the examiners that they are imposing the correct quality control procedures on the rest of the system.  A revolt among the recruiters, fomented by the press, could well be the fastest way of securing rapid and far-reaching change.


Much of this thesis may be wrong (forecasters such as myself are very content if they are right more than half the time). One thing of which I am certain is that rapid and far-reaching changes in our educational systems at every level are essential. Throwing money at the system will probably serve to delay those changes, while financial crisis and constructive publicity for the alternatives may well help to promote them.

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Written for presentation in 1982 to the cream of the British technical  press, bribed, like the other speakers and myself, with  nearly a week of fabulous hospitality in Sperry’s International Management Centre at St Paul-de-Vence near Nice.