Up To Date?

21 April 2022

Up To Date?

Degree targets.

By Robert Kilconner

Those who read books on leadership (if, that is, anybody really reads them as opposed to looking at images and pulling out slogans) will have found plenty of food for thought over the last few weeks. Both France and Russia are facing a slightly similar problem. How do you bring a society which (whether for reasons of genetics or history is a little, er, behind the curve) into the 21st century? Russia has wrestled with this for a long time, certainly since the days of Peter the Great, whose answer was to plagiarise the handbooks of his more advanced Western neighbours. As a man of prodigious energy he took modernisation seriously, not only disbanding and destroying the mutinous and reactionary Streltsy regiments and replacing them with a modern army , not only himself working in Dutch and English shipyards to master the latest techniques of naval construction, but also by using the land conquered from the Swedes at Poltava to build himself a modern capital, St Petersburg, to give his country a presence in the West. In some ways it is a strange story and the sight of him talking deferentially to the master shipwrights who were instructing him before turning to his coterie of accompanying Russian nobles who had to prostrate themselves on the ground when addressed must have caused some comment at the Deptford pubs. Nonetheless his approach was clear. Make Russia a part of the West to bring it up to date.

Mr Putin’s approach is the opposite. It is possible that following the breakup of the Soviet Union he saw the future of Russia as being that of a western democracy but, if so, that is all done now and the country, in contrast with many of its Iron Curtain neighbours, is retreating into a resentful isolation. Peter the Great would have been horrified.

Across the Channel, France faces a slightly similar problem. No, it has not retreated into resentful isolation but much of its social fabric – the labour laws, pension provision and race relations – need bringing up to date and the challenge to Mr Macron is to sell his modernising agenda to the electorate. It looks as though he will probably do so and if he does he will deserve his victory for his tenacity in the struggle which really matters.

And where do we sit in the UK in relation to the modernising agenda? What should we be doing to keep our society up-to-date? The Tony Blair Institute has no doubt, thinking that higher education is the key and upping its suggestion from the 50% target Mr Blair pursued in government to a new target of 70%. Of course that has run into flack from those who favour technical courses and those who favour learning on the job. The argument will bob to and fro, no doubt with headline figures pushing aside thoughtful analysis, but one distinction should be kept carefully in mind. There is a difference between degrees which train students for a particular job and those which educate them generally so they can pick up knowledge in the future. It is the second type of degree which will equip the nation for the future and perhaps the time has come to follow a more American model with a far more broadly based batchelor’s degree followed by a career-orientated masters, which could be refreshed and replaced at a later stage. Then our graduates will be knowledgeable and can stay cutting edge too. I think that is the course Peter the Great would have chosen.

Cover page image: portrait of Peter the Great by H Chornyy (Battle of Poltava History Museum, Poltava, Ukraine). Adam Jones / Wikimedia / Creative Commons)

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