Thursday, 31 December 2009

Raising the Elite of Tomorrow

Originally published in hardback in 2008 but now high on the Christmas 2009 bestseller charts in Germany (a ‘Spiegel bestseller’), Julia Friedrich's book Gestatten: Elite is essentially one journalist’s inquiry into how the young in Germany are being groomed to form the next generation of leaders of the economy and, perhaps, politics.

Why has it been so successful? The tale it tells is not encouraging – but perhaps Germany , like so many other countries, is now ready in the middle of the financial and economic crisis to reappraise the social and economic policies of the boom period.

The basic story of the book is that Germany is now raising new elites – in private universities, in private business schools, in private boarding schools, even in private kindergardens – who are being given enormously expensive education in the expectation that they will eventually take over at the helm of the German economy – its biggest firms, its investment banks and its consulting firms. However, they are not an ‘elite’ in the traditional sense of being particularly gifted – indeed, many if not most of the beneficiaries of this elite education are at or even below average achievement level in educational terms. Their advantage is not their ability, nor even particularly their dedication to hard work or their special ability to work with and lead other people – no, it consists essentially of the wealth of their parents, combined with their parents’ determination that these children will inherit power as well as wealth.

Worse, the book retails how the state is encouraging this new elitism in a variety of ways. At one level, it is importing these ideas of elitism into secondary and higher education in the public sector, in ways which are allowing rich parents to commandeer a disproportionate share of public resources for their own, not particularly gifted, children. For example, it is now common in Germany, as it has been for generations in the UK, for well-off parents to move into areas where the state schools have a reputation for being particularly good – something which Germany has largely avoided until relatively recently. Moreover, the private education sector is benefiting in tax terms from charitable status, just as in the UK, although the effects of this system are far from being ‘charitable’, being to the major disadvantage of the ‘losers’ who are not able to claw their way into this ‘elite’ class of students.

I guess that most UK readers of this book will feel a degree of Schadenfreude . After all, the ills which it documents have already been a central reality in our society and a matter for political disagreement for many decades. It is, naturally, a little comforting to find that others, particularly those who have long enjoyed enviable social and economic circumstances, now share some of the same plight as ourselves. The book provides a journalistic ‘human touch’ to put flesh on the bones of recent academic research, such as the recent book by Charles Harvey and Mairi MacClean into business elites in the UK and France, which demonstrates that the main factors which influence business success in both countries are family and education (along with professional bodies). Nevertheless, it is rather surprising to find that the Germans, who have for so long prided themselves on having transcended the ‘class society’ traditionally associated with the UK and the ‘two class’ society which scars the USA, have recently allowed and even encouraged the incursion of similar perversions of justice, with the economic inefficiencies which they bring in their wake.

However, my main reaction to the book was a reinforced horror of the way in which we in the UK have not only failed to tackle these issues – which are both more longstanding and more serious in the UK than in Germany – but have actually proposed in recent years to make things worse. We now have private universities, privately-funded and -controlled secondary ‘academies’, and are proposing to introduce a new generation of US-like ‘foundation’ schools, where the wishes of parents will override the social values which should be at the heart of any publicly-funded school system.

It is not as if we are unaware of the divisiveness and the mediocrity which ensue from an education system dominated by the decisions and expenditures of rich parents. Research has long charted the damaging effect on the UK economy of inherited positions and the promotion of those young people whose parents have bought their entry into the right schools and universities, irrespective of their abilities. However, this revealing book , which shows us how the same damaging tendencies have now surfaced and become strong in one of our closest neighbours, should remind us that we have been quiet for too long about the nonsense of current government policy, allowing the moneyed ‘elite’ to suffocate the meritocratic society which we once hoped to build in the last half of the twentieth century.

The book does not look beyond the education of the ‘new elite’ – it doesn’t attempt to map out for Germany the damage done to major private firms through MBA-itis, in the way Mintzberg has done for North America. It doesn’t attempt to highlight the demoralising effects on staff which nepotism has had in UK firms. And it doesn’t attempt to quantify the effects of lower innovation in companies due to favouritism towards less capable managers and staff, who happen to have come from the ‘right’ schools and universities. However, it holds up a mirror in which we can see our own faults more clearly.

At a time of New Year resolutions, it would be good if this book encouraged more readers to take a stand against the untalented and damaging ‘elites’ in our country, just as the author encourages her readers to do in Germany.

Such a platform needs to be debated and widely promoted. For starters, I suggest:
• no more tax breaks for private schools and universities;
• free choice of local schools for all parents, with lotteries where schools are oversubscribed;
• free choice of state universities for all students with the right entry qualifications, with lotteries where universities are oversubscribed;
• attractive bursaries for all students whose parental income means they do not have to pay student fees, so that more low income students are attracted to university;
• two-year exemption from national insurance contributions (by both employers and employees) for the top 10% of every degree class in the UK, whatever sector they are employed in
• a guarantee for the top 5% of performers in every degree class in the UK that they can enter a two-year training programme in the public sector, so that entry into the public sector is on merit;
• a proper wealth tax which ensures that people can spend the money they earn but not the money which they have inherited, through no skill or contribution of their own.

An elite based on merit has many drawbacks – but far fewer than an elite based on family income. It’s time to tackle the deep injustice and inefficiency of our current system. Your suggestions are welcomed.


Gestatten: Elite - Auf der Spuren der Mächtigen von Morgen, Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, München, 2009 (by Julia Friedrichs).

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Public influence outside political parties is not an illusion!

This is a response to a post by Andrea DiMaio headed ‘Why Citizen Participation May Be An Illusion’ on December 5th, 2009 at in which he argues that “It is all fair and good to say that politicians and government officials will carefully listen to what virtual communities say, but until when those communities can sit at a table and have a voting right, they won’t be able to make much difference”. He illustrates his point with reference to recent experiences in his original home town, near Milan, where a ‘city league’, i.e. a group of citizens not associated with any political party, decided to self-organize as an alternative to traditional politics, achieved a high profile and significant support, but didn’t have a single member elected as a councillor. Now they are considering forming as a more traditional political party, paradoxically in order to combat traditional party politics. He argues that this suggests that unorganized citizen involvement, e.g. through e-government and e-governance, will never have as much influence as organized involvement, which means getting ‘a vote at the table’.
Normally I enjoy the posts by Andrea DiMaio very much but this one had me shaking my head with dismay. I think he’s almost entirely missed the point here. Yes, many community groups and social movements will ‘go formal’ from time to time – they have that right. And, yes, many will become indistinguishable from the parties they originally formed to combat. (Of course, a few of them will go on to take over from those very parties – he has some good examples in Italy!). But this is NOT the way in which most citizens, even activists, have an influence.

We need to make a very clear distinction between ‘activists’ and ‘general citizens’. Most ‘general citizens’ are reluctant to spend much of their time making any positive contribution to civic debate or action, as Nick Jones points out very well in his comments above. However, they also resent being kept out of the debate, so they expect clear and visible invitations to participate, if only ‘arms-length’, on a reasonably frequent basis, though they will not generally take up those invitations. So it’s essential that they receive these invitations and feel included, if only at this very peripheral level. Occasionally, on issues which really switch them on, a proportion of general citizens (although usually only a quite small proportion) will become ‘activists’ for a while – not necessarily for long but it is likely that for a long time afterwards they will judge the responsiveness and the quality of the public sector by the experience they have in these periods of intense engagement.

Activists are different, of course – they know about and they care about the issues. But they often DON’T believe that they need a vote at the table. They do generally believe that they need a PLACE around the table. However, becoming formally enmeshed in ‘the system’ often seems to them to be counter-productive. We recently did a survey of a large number of high profile national and local activists in the UK on behalf of Communities and Local Government, our government department responsible for community empowerment. The majority had little involvement with MPs or local councillors, who of course DO have ‘a vote at the table’ but, as activists see it, almost no influence. Our activists had, however, huge involvement with the people they see as shaping the decisions made by public bodies – many of whom hold relatively low posts in public agencies and ministries, but write the reports which are rubber-stamped further up the decision-making chain. And our activists were VERY media-savvy. Almost NONE saw any circumstances in which they would be prepared to become MPs or local councillors, believing it would be of no value in furthering the causes and issues on which they were campaigning. (This is reminiscent of Tony Benn’s statement, when he announced that he would not stand as an MP again, that he was ‘leaving Parliament in order to be able to spend more time in politics’!) Yet these people generally have a very much higher profile than most national or local politicians and are believed by top decision makers to have an important influence on decisions which are made in government.

So, I would argue that the experience in Andrea DiMaio’s town in Italy is common but not a good guide to how the public can influence decision-making. In particular, we should recognize that both the public and activists can exert important influence on those with ‘a vote at the table’ and do not necessarily have to have a vote themselves. Moreover, those with ‘a vote at the table’ may have little real influence on the debate shaping decisions. Let’s not confuse having a vote with real influence over the debate, or authority with influence!