Put the money where it'll do the most good...
I'm hiding it well, but you can take my word for it that I'm pretty short of breath after a last minute dash to the local newsagent to buy a lottery ticket. When the jackpot is £117 million, then throwing a couple of pounds at it and crossing your fingers is a no-brainer. After all, someone has to win. Of course, I wouldn't let it change me if I won. The first couple of million goes on upgrading to slightly grander pad. New car would follow, and I think I'm due for a good holiday somewhere exotic. I'd have to put some of it aside to set the kids up nicely, obviously, and it would be nice to help out some family members. But when you really get down to it, £117 million doesn't go that far.
So perhaps you'll forgive me if don't sound head over heels at the news of £51 million investment into a new suite of Centres for Innovative Manufacturing (page 6 in this issue). It's a great headline, no doubt about it, and it came with a healthy dose of the obligatory rhetoric about how we need to rebalance the economy in favour of manufacturing. Probably some great work will be done. But for it to have any real value in the long term, you have to have a solid foundation in the place first. Where are the efforts to build that foundation? How is £51 million spent on some innovation centres going to address the real problems?
According to the latest findings, science and engineering is towards the lower end of the careers that parents would encourage their children to venture into. That's not a great start. The numbers of students entering science and technology based university courses are still dropping. Perhaps the thought of coming out of university with debts of £30,000 or more, only to enter to a sector that was allowed to whither for decades, and even now still has to largely support itself, is one factor putting students off. Perhaps there should be financial incentives to take subjects at university that the country actually needs, and financial disincentives to take courses of questionable value. Are we seriously assigning the same value of a BSc in a critical engineering science as to a BSc in surfing (Plymouth University) or to a degree in David Beckham studies (Staffordshire University)?
If we don't get the right people coming through the system, that doesn't bode well for the future. But in addition to that, what about greater support for the design and manufacturing businesses that we have today. These are forming the bedrock of our emergence from recession, and yet support for these businesses is sadly lacking. Everyone talks a good story. For example, we have press releases from banks telling us how much better UK businesses could be doing if only they'd borrow a bit more money and invest; but at the same time we have research from the UK's SMEs suggesting that access to finance is still far too costly and with terms and conditions that all but rule borrowing out. Something is clearly not right.
£51 million could potentially put more than 1700 students through university studying a science based subject. It could incentivise thousands of companies to employ new talent. It could provide interest-free, risk-free finance for businesses to make the critical investment they need. In short, it could help to address today's real issues - the big picture. So if I do happen to win £117 million this weekend, I promise to match the government's spending, but perhaps do something a little more useful with it. Fingers crossed - you've to be in it to win it.
Mark Simms, 12 March 2011
Industrial Technology - NEWS