On 13th March 2021, The Economist published a letter from Professor Jonathan Michie, Centenary Commission joint secretary, in response to its leader (‘How to make sparks fly’, 27th February 27th – published online as ‘Lessons from Britain’s pandemic on promoting innovation‘). The Economist‘s content is behind a paywall. This is the text of Jonathan’s letter:

Your ingredients for innovation include “good education” (“How to make sparks fly”, February 27th). Quite so. “Good” should mean broad based, crossing disciplinary ranges, and lifelong. This needs stressing, as governments too often take a narrow view, emphasising skills training, STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and education ending at age 18 or 21. When Britain faced its ultimate STEM-based challenge, breaking the Nazi codes at Bletchley, which included developing the world’s first digital programmable computer, researchers were recruited from across the disciplinary spectrum.

In 1919 the British Ministry of Reconstruction’s report on adult education urged “good education” so that the newly extended electorate could think critically and weigh evidence. It also had the foresight to warn that unknown industries and technologies were on the horizon, so it was no use just training workers for today’s skills. A workforce had to have the capabilities to make the most of new technologies as they emerged.

The Bank of England’s chief economist argued 100 years later, in a centenary report on adult education, that “the education system of tomorrow needs to span the generational spectrum—young to old—and the skills spectrum—cognitive to vocational to interpersonal.”

Professor of innovation and knowledge exchange
University of Oxford