Foreign ministers are sometimes duty-bound to follow heads of state on official visits abroad. One such visit to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in the early 90s of the last century, turned out to be memorable. As a matter of fact I find it quite relevant for the topic of discussion alotted to me here today: How should small nations design their educational policies for an uncertain future?
Gaston Thorn was the grand old man of Luxembourg politics in the post-war era; several times PM and later on EU-commission president. He happened to be sitting next to me at a dinner table, during some rather long drawn-out and solemn ceremony. I was curious to get to know, first hand, how Luxembourg had risen from rags to riches in a short space of time. By this time, Luxembourg had already become the richest member of the EU-club.
In essence, this is the recipe for success, which Mr. Thorn shared with me over steak and vin rouge that memorable evening.
FIRST: We managed to prevent introverted nationalists from declaring our „local dialect“ (as he called it) as our national language – to the exclusion of other tongues.
SECOND – and here Mr. Thorn converted to the singular: I succeeded in preventing the same political forces from establishing a national university, obliged by law to teach in the legally protected language. Instead I proposed founding a „Students´ loan-and – grants fund“, enabling our students to pursue higher education abroad (in Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and later on – in the USA). Of course it didn´t pass Mr. Thorn´s notice that in most cases foreigners were giving substantial subsidies for educating young people from Luxembourg, in so far as they didn´t collect tuition fees.
And THIRD – he added for emphasis : Having built this splendid structure (in which the state dinner took place) for our National Theater, I even managed to prevent „them“ from recruiting tenured local staff. Instead we kept the premises open for theatrical and opera troupes from all over the world, performing to the highest international standards.
To put it briefly, Mr. Thorn´s message was the following: His small nation faced a choice: Either to build their institutions on their national heritage (language, culture and traditions); or to adopt an internationalist outlook, operating within the framework of European integration. After some soul-searching, we opted for the second option, said Mr. Thorn. In doing so we could speedily diversify our underdeveloped and outmoded economy. We built up ultra-modern service industry (banking and finance) where our competitive edge was anchored in our international outlook. Our young generation, educated and trained abroad, attending the best universities, knew the languages, laws, customs and – last but not least – the mentality of our neighbours, at least as well as they themselves – if not better.
This has been a higly successfull strategy. In fact Luxembourg is saying to her neighbours: Anything you can do, we can to better (i.e. in our chosen fields of expertise). Although criticised for sheltering sometimes ill begotten wealth under the veil of bank secrecy, they have been able to get away with it, at least so far. Perhaps that is a privilege given to the small?
But at what price? Have they had to sacrifice their distinct national identity for this material success? This is debateable. But we should take note, that with increasing prosperity, the status of their local dialect has gradually been enhanced; and by now they even have their own permanent staff and domestic repertoire at their National Theater. Perhaps their choice was more a question of tactics rather than strategy?
The question remains: Is the Luxembourg example – successful as it is – something for small nations to emulate? I leave you with the question for our discussion afterwards.
When Iceland gained home-rule from faraway Copenhagen, in 1904, one of the first things on the agenda was to establish a national university. „Land, language and culture“ was the holy trinity, inscribed into its charter. In the beginning there were only three faculties. The first one was for our linguistic and cultural heritage; the second one was theology – for the indoctrination of priests for the church; and the third one was for the law of the land. In other words: The national university was to be the guardian of the raison d´étre of the embryonic state. It was meant to produce prosecutors, priests and pontificates of the past.
By the time Iceland gained sovereignty in 1918 (albeit in royal union with Denmark until 1944), it is interesting to note, that the leaders of the independence movement made it their top priority, in their negotiations with our former colonial masters, to secure a generous quota and free access for Icelandic students to the University of Copenhagen. Those were privileges that went way beyond anything offered to Danish citizens.
Why? Well, where was the new state going to recruit all the engineers, architects, technicians, managers, economists etc., etc., needed to steer the transformation from a stagnant, agrarian subsistence economy to a modern industrial society? Of course they had to come from abroad. From foreign universities, technological institutions and from work experience abroad – just as in the case of Luxembourg.
In the case of Iceland, the recipe for our belated economic transformation in the 20ieth C. can be summed up something like this:
- A relatively high level of general education enabled us to adopt foreign technology speedily. Icelanders were never so poor, that they were illiterate.
- Access to foreign capital was opened up by foreign (Danish ) banks.
- Free access to European markets for our exports (primarily seafood) was secure in the era up to the First World War.
- The political impetus for change came through the transfer of political power from the absent-minded colonial masters in Copenhagen to domestic politicians, dependent on their voters for reelection. Democracy worked.
Despite our solemn emphasis on preservation of our national language and cultural heritage, Iceland in fact adopted a policy similar to Luxembourg´s in sending „our best and the brightest“ abroad to study. There even emerged a geographical pattern to it: The physical scientists (physics, chemistry, engineering, etc.) went to Germany; medical doctors went for their specialization, either to Scandinavia or the USA; the social scientists (including us economists) went at first to the UK or Scandinavia, but after the Second World War increasingly to the USA. The literary or artistic crowd went predominantly to France or Scandinavia.
There is no doubt at all that those educational experiences of our educational elite have had profound effect for the better on the formation of Icelandic society and culture; making it more open, dynamic and adaptable to change than otherwise would have been thinkable.
In the sixties we established a „Students´ loan- and – grants fund“ , almost at the same time as Gaston Thorn did it in Luxembourg, to gain support for his internationalist outlook against the more inward-looking approach in his country. Since then the SLF has enabled those students who fulfill minimum standards to study abroad at esteemed universities, all over the world.
There is no way that Iceland, due to our limited resources, could offer the level of expertise, in a variety of disciplines, that those students gain abroad. The cost- benefit analysis has so far, no doubt, been beneficial to us. But, of course, there is a downside: The risk of „brain-drain“, instead of our „brain-gain“.
During the first decade of the 21st C. my country – which until then had at least aspired to being a member of the exclusive club of Nordic welfare states – was turned into an experimental laboratory for ill-founded, neo-conservative policies of the market-fundamentalist variety. This unfortunate experiment ended, in less than a decade, in total, systemic collapse of both our financial institutions and national currency. Even the Central Bank became bankrupt. For years to come we shall have to carry the heavy burden of indebtedness, left behind by our incompetent and greedy banksters. Apart from a tiny financial elite, with its hidden funds in taxhavens all over the world, the nation has suffered an almost unique fall in living standards, higher taxes and savage cuts in public expenditures, not the least in the fields of healthcare and education.
During the boom years we boasted of almost a dozen universities . And the Rector of the University of Iceland announced plans for her institution to become one among the 100 best universities in the world. After the Crash, this is considered to be one of the least palatable jokes from this period of „collective madness“, as a world authority on financial folly described the Icelandic experiment.
It will take us, Icelanders, a long time to recover from this catastrophy and return back to normal. Among other things, for the first time we now face the prospect of long-term brain-drain. The danger is that the „best and the brightest“, with their advanced specialist training abroad will no longer find job opportunities in Iceland; or that salaries offered will have become distinctively non-competitive. Apart from a bonanza for mass-produced lawyers, profiting from endless litigation over debt issues in the years to come, the most advanced sectors of Icelandic society (IT, pharmaceuticals, energy technology, etc.) have been hardest hit.
You don´t attract a lot of FDI, nor can you easily operate in international markets, behind the walls of capital controls. But without capital controls , everyone agrees, the Icelandic currency would suffer another collapse, yet again doubling the debt-burden in the local currency. This is the price Icelanders seem to be willing to pay for not joining the EU.
For how long shall we be able to sustain a generous support system for our students, studying abroad, if the prospects of return on the investment are fading away?
UNESCO has reported that during the next 30 years, more people will be attending institutions of higher education than in the whole of history. That´s a lot of people in a short space of time. And one more fact to help us concentrate our minds: A six year old – starting school this fall – will presumably be seeking retirement around 2075. How are we going to prepare him or her – educating them, if you will – for this long working career?
We may think we know the right questions – based on our experience and best practices internationally so far. But in a period of rapid technological change – of „creative destruction“, in the language of Joseph Schumpeter – our scientists and entrepreneurs may well have changed the answers, to paraphrase Einstein.
Our scientists are regularily sending us signals – more and more frequently – that our single-minded pursuit of economic growth and frantic search for natural resources to exploit, all over the globe, is increasingly endangering our finite natural environment. In our geographical vicinity – in the Arctic High North – there is opening up a new continent, rich in natural resources, but in a precarious and vulnerable environment.
Will we manage to utilize those riches for the benefit of mankind, under a regime of „sustainable developement“? Or will we become the victims of „Africa-like“ grab for resources, leaving physical destruction and political mayhem in its wake? The simple answer is – we don´t know.
It is gradually dawning upon our best social scientists, that the global financial system is utterly out of control. The vast bulk of wealth creation in the neo-liberal era – has accrued to a tiny plutocratic elite, both in the advanced and emerging economies. The basic duty of democratic governance is to uphold the rule of law. Nonetheless, this plutocratic elite has, with impunity, stored away an estimated sum of 35 trillions of dollars in 60 tax-havens around the world (an amount equivalent to the GDPs of the USA and Japan – the biggest and the third biggest economies of the world – put together). Although in clear breach of the rule of law, those taxhavens have hitherto enjoyed the protection of the most powerful states on earth. At the same time real wages are stagnating (or even declining) and youth unemployment has reached obscene proportions. Those are clear symptoms of a sick body politic – and a mal-functioning democracy.
Political leaders, parliaments, governments and the media are all increasingly under the thumb of this all powerful plutocratic elite, preventing effective action for reform in the common interest of humanity. Against the background of this analysis, it is hardly surprising that symptoms of the rise of authoritarian and even fascist political forces, are ominously emerging in many societies, in Europe and elsewhere.
What about the liberating power of education? Academia is supposed to be free from the shackles of special interest and entrenched prejudice. Have our learned professors fulfilled their civic duty to share their accumulated knowledge and benign wisdom with the rest of us? What about the state of mainstream economics, as taught at elite US universities and spread around the world as the universally acclaimed “conventional wisdom”? How many Nobel-prize winners foresaw – let alone warned us of – the financial tsunami, which has engulfed America and Europe with devastating consequences for millions of people?
Has the academic elite failed in translating their research into practical benefits for ordinary people? It didn´t escape our notice in Iceland, that the self-declared paragons of virtue of the financial system – the rating agencies – gave all the Icelandic banks triple A-ratings, until the day before they collapsed. Only the day after were they rated as junk. And our PM, who presided over my country´s economic ruin, could boast of at least three degrees from esteemed American universities in his field of expertise – namely neo-liberal economics.
“Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don´t matter in today´s great debates. The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That´s academic”. In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant”. – This is a quotation from a brilliant op-ed piece in the N.Y. T., Feb. 16 by the regular columnist (and political scientist) Nicholas Kristof. A copy should be pasted on the notice-boards in the common rooms at all university campuses. The article ends with an eloquent appeal to the inhabitants of the ivory towers to step down and embroil themselves in our policy debates. It ends with those words: “Professors, don´t cluster yourselves like medieval monks – we need you!”
I leave you with those questions and appeals for our later discussion.
We have to make up our minds: Are we going to educate our descendants for democracy – giving everyone an equal opportunity? Or are we to put the emphasis on elite education, exclusively for those with the means to pay for it? Are we going the Nordic way – with its emphasis on community and the public duty to provide education for all? Or do we prefer the American way, where money can buy you everything that is best in life – but at the cost of segregated education – turning what was once the “land of opportunity“ into a bastion of pecuniary privilege. Once again I leave you with those questions for our discussion.
As for us, the small nations of this world, we should appreciate that ours is both the privilege of being able to practice democracy and the existential need to banish class divisions in order to maintain social cohesion. So I suggest that we should concentrate our minds on the following:
- Give all our young the equal opportunity to be educated for democracy.
- Know our limits – concentrate our intellectual and material resources on what we are best at – and leave the rest to others.
- Our universities should aim at providing sound basic education, but when it comes to research and development, concentrate our efforts within our chosen fields of specialization.
- As for the “best and the brightest”, organize “students´ loan- and -grants funds” to give them the chance to reach the highest level of excellence within their fields of expertise.
- As for the risk of “brain-drain” – we simply have to live with it. Why not appreciate the thought that by offering some of our best brains to the world at large, we don´t aim to be free-riders, but stand ready to do our bit to help create a better world.
If you have a look at the UN index on the overall quality of life, you will notice, that small nations are coming out on top or doing very well. That is leading by example. Perhaps the attraction of our quality of life – compared to the overcrowding of the megacities of the future – will suffice to attract our best brains back home again.