Clever investments

August 28, 1998

I am not quite clear if Andrew Oswald (THES, August 21) is supporting my conclusion or not. I was not reflecting on the UK's "past glories", whatever they may be, but drawing on the evidence provided by Sir Robert May's article, "The Wealth of Nations".

It might be possible to discount this evidence as being provided by a self-interested Briton were it not confirmed by Cole and Phelan, United States scholars whose findings will soon be published. These conclusions, backed by a wealth of statistical evidence, look more soundly based than the apparently casual remark by an economist colleague from Harvard.

My article ("The challenge ahead", THES, August 14) also made the point that the UK came "a very poor second" to the US and was very closely pursued in the statistical league tables by a number of other countries.

I was able to buy The THES in which Mr Oswald's letter appeared while on holiday in Canada from an enormous US bookstore chain that has a floor space far in excess of any comparable bookshop in the UK, and this in a small provincial town. This seemed to me to have something to contribute to the argument: very large markets tend to generate wealth and some risk-taking. The problem for UK higher education is that it is a relatively small, seriously underfunded system. The US has much greater buying power, even for economists, and can afford to give them more freedom to be creative. If we are to compete it must be by boxing clever and by providing a stimulating academic culture.

But in the end you need to have the confidence to invest to get a good return, a message that my US bookstore chain could usefully pass on to HM Treasury.

Michael Shattock, University of Warwick

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