Britain is Great, but our low productivity is puzzling

In the 1980s, this country was looked upon as the sick man of Europe. Today we are the envy of Europe. 

In Britain, we used to look down on entrepreneurship – entrepreneurs were dismissed as Del Boys and second-hand car salesmen – but today we celebrate it because we are one of the entrepreneurship centres of the world.

In every field that can be imagined, whether it be architecture, entrepreneurship, universities, the City of London, the creative industries, or culture and sport, we are the best of the best. Brand Britain is on the rise. 

Particularly when it comes to food and drink, our biggest export sector, Britain has seen a great turnaround in the last two decades, with entrepreneurs grasping global tastes and trends and starting to get their brands noticed around the world. We are exporting beer to Belgium, sausages to Germany and cheese to France.

The Chancellor’s most recent Budget included some excellent measures to help boost our entrepreneurs, such as the extension of entrepreneurs’ relief and the business rate relief – some 630,000 small businesses will not pay business rates at all next year.

There are regions of England where the Chancellor's devolution deal will make a huge impact. A recent Centre for Cities report found that the North of England’s core cities lag up to 40 percentage points behind European rivals on the measure of productivity. Yet lately I have been relatively uninspired by measures that will improve the UK's productivity, which is what we urgently need.  

We are caught up in a short-term, five-year election cycle, when what we really need more than anything else to improve productivity is to invest in our universities.

As a percentage of GDP, British spending on universities is way below that of the United States, way below the EU average, way below the OECD average, and yet along with the US we have the best universities in the world. Cambridge University with its 92 Nobel Prize winners has won more than any other university in the world. Just imagine how much better we could do if we were to spend the equivalent in proportion to our competitors.

We have great research papers and amazing fundamental research. This could lead to huge forward steps in everything from heavy industry to high-tech mobile products, yet as a percentage of GDP we underinvest on R&D and innovation compared with the EU and the OECD average and are way below the United States. Even South Korea invests more as a percentage of GDP on R&D and innovation than we do.

To increase our investment in a strategic fashion, the Chancellor has made a good start by investing in the regions. First the Northern Powerhouse and then in the Midlands Engine, more of our great universities are increasing their collaborative ties with industry and enterprise outside of the ‘Golden Triangle’ of London, Oxford and Cambridge.

The University of Birmingham is behind the drive to supercharge productivity in the Midlands Engine, an ambitious initiative whose Chairman was named just last week as Sir John Peace. I have supported the initiative from the beginning as Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, and I look forward to seeing even more job opportunities and wealth open up in the region.

The Midlands used to be a manufacturing hub for Britain. Now it is a manufacturing hub for the world, with many foreign-owned manufacturers making their base there, from Japanese Ricoh to Indian-owned Jaguar–Land Rover. Altogether, Britain continues to set the pace for innovation worldwide.

We need to capitalise on our reputation for high industry standards and creativity. And manufacturing is key to this.

Without a strong manufacturing base in the UK – currently only 10 per cent of our GDP – we are missing out on a huge area of growth and a potential to bring jobs and wealth to our shores. A proud nation should have a productive economy. 

And, by making things here, we can export goods all over the world. As Brand Britain takes wing and Britons start businesses at an ever-increasing rate, we need to make sure we are still making the products that the world loves, rather than leaving this to overseas suppliers.

British entrepreneurs have changed the way people see Britain, but it is mostly British services, such as cutting-edge financial technology and world-famous legal expertise, that we export. Building on our strong exports in other areas, British technology can be used in the most high-tech and high-value supply chains throughout the world.

Invest in universities and in R&D, and the innovators will continue to bring Britain's great ideas to market.

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