Abigail Watson

Abigail Watson is a researcher at the Legatum Institute.

First, the good news: Britain was ranked the 15th most prosperous country in the world by our recent Prosperity Index – well ahead of France (22nd) Italy (37th) and Singapore (17th).  Now for the bad news: only last year the same Index declared the UK the 13th most prosperous country in the world.

Its ability to provide basic goods – especially health and education – have dragged down the UK’s ranking which, in other sectors, is much better (for example, in Entrepreneurship and Opportunity it is 6th, and in Governance 9th).

To improve its prosperity, and compete with other powerful nations, the UK must address these core issues.

In health, despite slight improvement, the UK ranks amongst the bottom 50 per cent of its OECD peers. Moreover, the UK comes in the bottom half of OECD countries for life expectancy.

One key issue is cancer survival rates. According to MacMillan Cancer Support, despite some progress, the UK is still lagging decades behind other European countries in its survival rate for lung cancer.

Although it has improved from seven per cent in the 1990s to 10 per cent in the 2000s, Austria Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway all recorded better survival rates in the 1990s than the UK did in the 2000s. This is also true of breast cancer, for which the UK’s 81 per cent survival rate was met ten years ago by France, Sweden and Italy.

A report by the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year claimed the Department of Health and the NHS have “lost momentum … in the last two years,” and are not satisfactorily addressing cancer survival rates.

There are a number of ways to do this. The committee argued that, among other things, access to radiotherapy machines must be increased (at the present, England has five radiotherapy machines for every one million people, fewer than most other high-income countries) and the disproportionately low survival rates among the poor and the old need to be addressed.

Finance, staff levels and the “post code lottery” nature of services remain key issues.

In its pursuit of prosperity, the UK should also look to mental health, which accounts for 22 per cent of the NHS workload and only 11 per cent of its expenditure. The life expectancy of people with mental health problems remains 20 years lower than the general population.

Moreover, Paul Farmer (the Chief Executive of the charity Mind) notes that when people with mental health problems’ needs are not adequately addressed it can lead to other, more expensive, health problems.

The Government’s actions in this area are promising, but more can be done. While expenditure still does not match NHS workload, the Government increased mental health funding to £11.7 billion in 2014/5. In spring this year it also pledged an extra £1.25 billion for children’s mental health over the next five years.

Moreover, Jeremy Hunt said he was “committed to doing more” for mental health.

In education, the UK ranks behind 70 per cent of its OECD peers. One way of addressing this, as recommended by Harriet Maltby, is by revitalising traditional teaching methods.

She argues that those who are in “the top ten for education [in the Index], like New Zealand (6th), are tearing up traditional ‘factory style’ teaching,” and suggested the UK should do the same.

She is not the first to suggest this. Phillip Pullman and Baroness Morris of Yardley both argue that the rigidity of the British educational system, with its emphasis on assessment, is “sapping the energy and creativity” from the classroom.

The UK does particularly badly in tertiary education enrolment (ranking in the bottom 25 per cent of OECD countries). Looking to the many students who have protested against tuition fees, there are obviously financial reasons for declining tertiary education enrolment.

While abolishing tuition frees may not be an option, increasing student’s perceived value for money and satisfaction is. A number of surveys have found students do not feel like they are getting enough for what they pay; the Teaching Excellence Framework (which will be used as an assessment to decide whether universities are allowed to raise their fees) must address this issue to improve enrolment.

Financial issues are also leading to a decline in part-time learners. These make up one-fifth of all university students; however, their number has dropped by 41 per cent in the last five years.

A number of experts have argued this is due to the accessibility of financial support.  Only a third of part-time learners are eligible for a tuition fee loan and, if they take one, they have to commit to studying for the full length of the course. As a result, many prospective students are deciding that it is not an option.

Worse, as Annette McCone from Birkbeck notes, “[t]he alternative to part-time isn’t full time, it’s not studying at all”. Thus fewer people are pursuing further study. In fact, Nick Hillman, the Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, writes: “[t]he collapse in part-time study is arguably the single biggest problem facing higher education at the moment”.

Increasing part-time learners’ accessibility to finance and the courses more generally will have a big impact on the lives of the students themselves as well as UK society.

A healthier and smarter Britain will make us the envy of our neighbours. Moreover, it is in our reach – but the Government has got to want it!

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