German lessons don’t sink in

Features editor
The Engineer

Companies like BMW embody the strengths of the German philosophy of education of engineers and reap the benefits of investment in early-stage technologies

It sometimes seems that every editorial comment we write at The Engineer ends up with a call for more funding from government in something or other. A quick check back on my previous pieces show that it’s not quite every one — but very nearly.

I make no apologies for that. The shortsighted approach by government to investment in science and technology is one of the UK’s major failings, and has been for many years.

A piece by veteran journalist and author John Kampfner in today’s Guardian hit the nail on the head. Kampfner, the newspaper’s former German correspondent, is discussing the differing attitude to labour laws in Germany and the UK, but early in the article he pinpoints the difference between the view of the importance of technology and engineering, and on funding them, in the two countries.

German economic strength, he says, is not based on ‘cyclical, unsustainable factors’ such as property booms. ‘Instead, the German — and broader north European — approach emphasises vocational training and apprenticeships, particularly in engineering, manufacturing and the sciences. It invests in research and development, and in strong education.’

It would be wrong to portray Germany as a paradaisical haven for engineers and engineering. Chat to a German technology journalist and you’ll hear as much concern about skills gaps, government indecision and inertia, and even about the waning status of engineers, as we do in the UK. But despite this, Germany just seems to get it right more often than the UK. From the success of the Fraunhofer Institutes — which we’re only just starting to emulate, over forty years after they were set up — to the ingrained importance of career progress for engineers, Germany consistently sets the pace in industrial innovation.

Kampfner’s also right about Northern Europe. Go to Finland and ask about education, and you’ll be told, enthusiastically, about the benefits of structured play for children in their early years, about the importance of training, status and high pay for teachers, and about how all students end up with skills in languages, mathematics, sciences and humanities despite starting formal schooling much later than in the UK. The relatively small population of Northern European countries is an important factor here, but the very different philosophy of education, and its undeniable results, just doesn’t seem to have made an impression on generations of British politicians.

Instead, they keep on with funding which verges on miserly, an education policy which verges on incoherent, and constant, consistent misunderstanding and undervaluing of the goals and purpose of basic and precompetitive research.

And yet it’s true that Britain has a science base that puts the rest of Europe to shame; more papers published, with higher impact, across more sectors, than any other nation. Government asks why this is not exploited — well, anyone might think that the tiny proportion of GDP invested in R&D compared with our competitor nations could well have something to do with it.

The German economy has been through tough times, like every other economy. It’s been stagnant and slow-moving at times when the UK has boomed. But it always comes back. It comes back through solid, albeit sometimes unspectacular, performance by a strong manufacturing sector based around chemicals, materials, and automotive. German industry sees opportunities, such as in renewables, forms a strategy to exploit them, and does it, with government support. And as Kampfner argues today, it does that because of a philosophy that is built into German political thought and that is completely absent from the UK.

Technology matters. Science matters. Engineering matters. The way to demonstrate that isn’t just to say it, as generations of British politicians have done. It’s to put money behind it, in the right place, at the right time.