CoVid-19 has reminded us all how inter-connected the world is. As we have all realised over recent years, globalisation produces challenges and difficulties as well as benefits. One of the prices to pay for the last thirty years of global economic growth has been the expansion of airline and transport networks that do not just allow goods to move quicker and more cheaply around the world; they allow pathogens to do so too.
Anyone who says they know what the world will look like once CoVid-19 has passed should be ignored. As the Chinese scholar Lao Tzu put it two and a half thousand years ago, ‘those who have knowledge do not predict the future; those who predict the future do not have knowledge.’
One thing, however, is certain. We in the UK need to understand other parts of the world better. We need to do this to be aware of future challenges, disease-related or otherwise; we need to do this to be able to take better advantage of opportunities both at government level, and for the private sector. We need to do this make sure that our education system, and perhaps most importantly, those it produces remains world-class.
There are lots of ways that this can be achieved.
My proposal though is practical, achievable, measurable and modest. It is also essential.
Being globally competitive in the first instance means being globally aware. That is something we are conspicuously bad at in the UK today – unless we are looking in the familiar direction of the United States and Europe.
When it comes to Russia, the Middle East, North or sub-Saharan Africa – let alone South Asia, China and South East Asia, the next generation of students, teachers, civil servants, business leaders and politicians are singularly poorly prepared.
These are places, regions, entire continents that barely feature in the school curriculum. When they feature in public consciousness, in films for example, they appear as caricatures and pale imitations of reality.
My proposal is that we address the challenge of preparing for a genuinely Global Britain systematically.
At present, there are just a thousand students at universities in the UK taking courses in Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Urdu, Thai, Khmer, Korean, Japanese and Turkish – combined.
Although language learning is not the only way to learn about other cultures, supporting in depth, specialist knowledge of other peoples’ histories, literatures and languages is a vitally important step in setting the direction for the country’s future.
I therefore propose two inter-related programs.
The first is to provide full scholarships for students who do undergraduate degrees in an initially defined set of six languages: Chinese; Arabic; Farsi; Hindi; Turkish and Japanese.
These would be government-funded awards that pay tuition fees in full, provide for a maintenance grant and an allowance for travel to and study in a country where these skills can be further developed.
Funding 1,000 Heywood scholarships in this way would have a cost to government that is effectively negligible – at c£30m per year (compared to an annual budget of the British Council of £1.25bn).
These scholarships would be competitive and awarded using contextual data to enable high participation rates amongst low income households -and therefore additionally serve to promote social mobility, raise aspirations and provide avenues for bright, ambitious young people from deprived socio-economic areas.
The second element is the creation of a Heywood scholarship network that means that more opportunities are provided than support with fees alone.
While Heywood scholars will study at many universities in the UK (rather than at a standalone language school), a support network would provide logistical support for travel abroad; but perhaps more importantly, connects young scholars to enable them to get to know each other, learn from each other’s experiences, and take advantage of networking opportunities.
Heywood Scholars would meet for a week, once a year, out of term time for courses on global government, international finance and contemporary international relations as a way of stimulating their education further still, enabling them to meet and build social networks with each other, and to help nurture talent
This additional week need not take place on-site, but could be hosted remotely – with prominent names from the private sector and from government giving talks, advice and providing insights alongside students presenting their own research and experiences.
Establishing a link to the civil service and to fast-stream entry would not only be a tribute to Sir Jeremy Heywood, but also demonstrate that government is actively trying to recruit those with valuable skills and encouraging them into public service after graduation.
Structuring this proposal is not complicated; it requires a set of trustees to oversee the scheme and select students using AI and data; a Director to co-ordinate students and set up and run the annual program; and a administrator and finance officer to oversee logistics.
My proposal is tangible; cheap; and effective. And it would bring benefits to the UK almost immediately, engaging a cohort that will be well placed to understand a rapidly changing world.
We cannot afford to be complacent in the UK and expect the world to come to us. Pioneering spirit is not easy to cultivate; but if Britain is to succeed in the 21st century, we should be doing everything we can to help, encourage and promote young talent.
This proposal does just that.
I think it is one that not only Sir Jeremy Heywood would have supported. It would also be one he would have been proud of.