Britain is squandering its history of technological innovation, according to Google chairman Eric Schmidt
Google chairman Eric Schmidt has criticised the education system in Britain for failing to ignite young people’s passion for science, engineering and maths.
Delivering the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Schmidt also said that not making IT compulsory as a subject at GSCE-level and not providing enough support for science students at college meant the country was “throwing away” its computing heritage.
“I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools,” he said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.
“It’s not widely known, but the world’s first office computer was built in 1951 by Lyons’ chain of tea shops. Yet today, none of the world’s leading exponents in these fields are from the UK.”
Bringing art and science back together
He said that Britain needed to reunite art and science, as it had in the “glory days of the Victorian era,” when Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland while teaching mathematics at Oxford. He also mentioned James Clerk Maxwell, who was described by Einstein as among the best physicists since Newton, but was also a published poet.
“Over the past century, the UK has stopped nurturing its polymaths,” said Schmidt. “There’s been a drift to the humanities – engineering and science aren’t championed. Even worse, both sides seem to denigrate the other. You’re either a ‘luvvy’ or a ‘boffin’. You need to bring art and science back together.”
The former Google CEO also said that, while the UK does a good job of backing small firms, British startups tended to sell out to overseas companies once they had reached a certain size, and that this trend should be reversed.
“There’s little point getting a thousand seeds to sprout if they are then left to wither or transplanted overseas,” he said. “UK businesses need championing to help them grow into global powerhouses, without having to sell out to foreign-owned companies. If you don’t address this, then the UK will continue to be where inventions are born, but not bred for long-term success.”
Brits lag in IT
Schmidt’s words back up recent research from analyst firm IDATE, which found that the British technology sector is failing to keep up with the global pace of growth, expanding by just 0.84 percent in 2010, compared with annual global growth of 3.3 percent.
Steve Beswick, UK director of education for Microsoft, also warned earlier this month of a decline in the number of students taking IT-related A-levels, based on 2011 figures.
“IT jobs are growing at four times the rate of the standard jobs market. With fewer people with appropriate IT skills coming out of education, there’ll be no-one to fill the jobs available in the marketplace,” Beswick told Computer Weekly. “We could see more off-shoring to India and China as a result.”
Schmidt’s speech should add fuel to prime minister David Cameron’s plans to build a ‘Tech City’ in London’s East End, as a rival to California’s Silicon Valley. Intel, Google and Facebook have all committed to opening research labs or innovation centres in the area affectionately known as Silicon Roundabout, and Cisco has promised a long-term investment of technology, manpower and money for the government’s British Innovation Gateway project.