Interview with Dr Michael Henry
A distinguished US economist, passing through the UK to a major appointment overseas, explained to us why we not only need to get more students from non-white, middle class backgrounds into engineering and technical subjects in the UK, but advance these subjects in all the countries of the world.
Dr Michael Henry, who is affiliated to Yale University and St Antony's College, Oxford, stated: "Everybody has to work together if we are going to get the world out of the mess we are in. But at the moment, we seem to be working in the opposite direction."
As regards the education of future engineers in the UK, especially those from ethnic backgrounds, he was fairly scathing. "I've read essays penned by students in the UK – some of which were very poorly written, indeed, much below the level expected of a fourth form student – parents of African backgrounds send their children to be educated in schools, back home, because they get a better foundation for the tertiary level of their education. I went to school in Guyana, then British Guiana. It was not easy. You had to work hard, but the intellectual rewards have been enormous."
When we asked why there were so few black engineers in the UK, he responded that this was not so in other countries. He pointed out that there were black engineers being turned out by the University of the West Indies, by 'a number of sub Saharan African countries. Henry added: "You will find black engineers and scientists in Atlanta, Georgia". He attributed this last fact, in large measure, to US Affirmative Action programmes, which have led to US employers making an effort to recruit women and people from non-white ethnic groups, raising the aspirations of female and ethnic pupils, at schools, to do subjects, which, 'require considerable focus and assiduity.' He thought we should introduce an affirmative action programme in the UK too.
Raising the aspirations of children at school to do challenging subjects, is not, of course, a problem that only applies to black children. Dr Henry referred to a study, presented at a Yale ISPS seminar on inner city poverty, which found that inner city kids who were motivated intellectually had to hide their books from their peers. He said: "We have since confirmed that this problem exists in predominately white communities in parts of the UK too. One need is to inspire students by getting them a sight of working in interesting environments and people from those environments coming to schools to talk about what they do, remembering that students are fairly pliable while they are in years 7 and 8 (age groups 12 and 13) but later become set in their ways and much harder to influence."
As regards the rest of the world, Henry saw the role of engineering and technology as very important. He first mentioned the roles of mechanical, chemical and civil engineers, who could build roads, bridges, railways and other kinds of physical infrastructure, but saw the importance of all aspects of engineering that could contribute to the creation of wealth. He explained: "If we could eliminate poverty, the rest of the world would also benefit enormously from measures undertaken by the previously impoverished, rather than just a small subset of nations involved in technical advancement." He added that nations newly entering the technical arena would be likely to come up with new ideas. "They should not copy what has been done in the West – we would not want to produce the same sorts of cars that have caused global warming. We need new kinds of solutions that would also contribute to Western development which will become possible once we have more technologically educated individuals."
The only major barrier he saw was greed. Henry observed: "Indeed, historically inordinate greed has always been a major problem. But I have great hopes of the new US administration, which I see as appointing the best people from all racial, religious and social groups so everyone will benefit."
We can only hope.
Dr Michael Henry is the author of 'Race, poverty and domestic policy' and other works, and is affiliated to the Centre of African Studies at the University of Oxford and the Institution for Social Policy Studies at Yale University.
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