By Adam Walker, Economics Correspondent

Made in the UK

Are Academic Attitudes Degrading The Manufacturing Industry?

Over the past 30 years the UK has gone from housing a manufacturing industry to being an almost entirely service-based economy with a particular emphasis on the financial sector.

On The London Economic we have discussed this in a number of articles including Jack Peat’s article on 3D printing aiding British manufacturing and one of my previous articles on whether London’s service sector is draining the UK. Regardless of the success and benefits associated with a service-based economy there is a definite need for the United Kingdom to reignite its manufacturing roots and begin to flex our expertise in new channels of industry as we cannot wholly rely on one area if we are to sustain meaningful levels of growth.

Many would say that the government is at fault for not investing enough in local production and, to a degree, there is some justification in this argument. Since the Thatcher government shut down the mining industry in the 80s the UK government has been reluctant to increase subsidies in local manufacturing sectors and instead favoured the financial and legal markets. However, it is becoming more obvious that people’s opinions of these trades and careers within them have become more negative over the past few decades, not only because of their prominence but also the way our academic or career choices have been influenced from a young age.

An Academic Focus On Service

Education, in its current form, has a natural bias towards the service industry. This is shown even at a primary level where children’s learning is focused on the sciences, IT and languages, outside of the basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Although other subjects are covered such as Design Technology, Art and Music there is never the same rigour or prestige placed on being skilled in the latter areas but struggling in the more academic. These beliefs tend to continue through to a secondary and university level where qualifications in “academic” subjects tend to take priority over patronisingly dubbed “vocational” courses, so is it surprising that young people don’t value these skills as much anymore?

This devaluation of non-scholarly skills also means that large groups of students, at all levels, are deemed “average” because their skillset does not match the preconceived criteria of what makes a “good student”. As Einstein once famously said “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

As a result, individuals, who may have the necessary skills to advance the manufacturing industry are instead actively discouraged from pursuing them in favour of more accepted courses which build the service sector whilst taking away from local production. Furthermore, as educational attendance becomes more prominent these beliefs are only getting stronger instead of balancing out.

High School Attendance

Historically, education (particularly higher education) was not a necessity and many young people would go into apprenticeships or family businesses in order to begin their careers. In 2014 the ONS published data stating that over 52 per cent of people in the UK aged 65+ had no academic qualifications to their name. As a result many were able to sustain crafts and companies that had been part of their families or communities for decades through varied learning techniques, whilst those looking to become part of the more academic industries, such as Law and Finance, went into education.

Compare that to data released earlier in the year that said over around ten per cent of people aged between 16 and 24 have no academic qualifications and you begin to see that educational attendance has increased drastically over the past 50 years, something which should definitely be considered a great achievement. Yet the mind-set within academia has not experienced such a large shift and as a result we have maintained a narrow-minded perspective about what can be defined as a “good career”.

The Telegraph recently published an article on the Top 12 Degree Subjects for Getting a Job, 11 of which were based in service sectors and three out of the top five were in medicine. This further demonstrates the thought process that is taught to us from a young age and carries through to our adult lives, not only affecting what careers we choose as young adults but also who we choose to employ as well as what we perceive as a good industry investment in later life. With this in mind, should it really come as a surprise that we churn out so many lawyers and doctors and so few mechanics and designers?

Education’s Responsibility to Manufacturing

As I said earlier, the increase in educational attendance is something to be proud of and represents a genuine sign of social progress. However, the responsibility now falls on the shoulder of the educational establishments to revolutionise the way they perceive, categorise and qualify students with the aim of encouraging young people to explore their natural talents and skills rather than hammering a comparatively narrow curriculum into everyone.

This is not to say that teachers should teach more subjects or that children should be kept in school for longer, but instead we should be placing the same level of prestige on all careers and promote the idea that being part of the manufacturing industry is as valuable and rewarding as being part of the banking or health industry.

If we are to expand our national skillset and begin to regain our share of the local production markets we must first place them on a level playing field and this means starting at the most fundamental level, namely what we are taught at a young age. Without this we are simply trying to encourage investment and careers in, what we currently see as, second-rate sectors.

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