French education slammed for ‘stifling curiosity’

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The French education system is killing creativity, according to a Paris-based academic who told a conference on innovation that teachers there "have become masters at destroying confidence".

Soumitra Dutta, professor of business and technology at INSEAD business school in Paris, said the US produces more creative students and makes outsiders feel more welcome – factors which help explain why the US is still more innovative than Europe.

"French schools have become masters in destroying confidence. They take a child and pummel them, insisting that they copy word-for-word what the teacher has written on the blackboard," he told a conference organised by the American Chamber of Commerce in the EU (AmCham EU) in Brussels last week (8 October).

He said his own daughter had been brow-beaten by the French school system, whereas the American system encourages creativity and tells children that it is okay to make mistakes.

"We have to become better at inspiring young people and giving them role models who have made it as entrepreneurs and innovators. At the moment, we're not very good at supporting creativity," said Dutta.

He said Europeans are as innovative at birth as others but "somehow as they grow up their curiosity is stifled". Even the European university system lags behind the US because they are "stuck in the middle ages" and need reform, according to the professor, who has taught on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dutta warned that the EU and US have fewer young people going into science and technology compared to developing countries, where participation in maths and sciences remains strong.

Also key to fostering innovation is welcoming foreign talent. He said it is considerably more difficult to adjust to life in Europe compared to Silicon Valley, where newcomers are made to feel at home.

US business wants European reform

AmCham, which speaks for American multinationals, is demanding reform of Europe's tax system to eliminate incentives for early retirement and boost labour participation.

The US business lobby has published a new paper designed to diagnose and address Europe's innovation deficit. Many of the ideas reflect those included in the EU executive's Innovation Union document last week (6 October).

AmCham wants to see Europe's education system reformed to incorporate business skills into courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. They want to encourage more internships to help students gain hands-on experience in industry and establish business-run schools or academies.

The plan also backs the idea of a government-sponsored social investment bank, which would help civil society to get projects off the ground as well as providing advice and support to attract private investment.

William E. Kennard, US Ambassador to the EU, said innovation is about more than just technology and praised the Innovation Union strategy for broadening the focus to include new ways of doing things.

He said existing companies have a major role to play in innovation and warned against pouring too much cash into start-ups, many of which will fail once public supports are removed.

"Governments should take a businesslike approach to investing in innovative companies and should look at getting a return on investment," said Kennard.

The ambassador said a lot of stock has been put in innovation as a route out of the current crisis but action is needed to turn rhetoric into reality. "Sometimes innovation becomes a buzzword for economies that are struggling for growth," he said.

Kennard warned that innovation-inspired revolutions can radically shift the way we work and there is a need to help people adjust to the changed labour market by "retraining and retooling" workers.

Rudolf Strohmeier, deputy director-general for scientific advances at the European Commission's DG Research, said Europe suffers from unfavourable framework conditions which are holding back innovation. He listed patent costs, market fragmentation and access to finance among the hurdles to be overcome if the Innovation Union is to work.

Strohmeier acknowledged that the Lisbon Strategy for growth had been a failure but said it was too simplistic to suggest that sanctions for errant member states would address the problem.

He said mindsets in member states are changing to take a more innovative transnational approach and the target of spending 3% of GDP on R&D has now become common-sense.

Member states no longer have the money to duplicate work done at EU level, something Strohmeier described as "a helpful constraint". The Innovation Partnerships announced by the Commission last week will, he said, focus on the ageing society which will be "an easy sell" to citizens across Europe.

Soumitra Dutta, professor of business and technology at INSEAD business school in Paris, said Korea, Singapore and Finland had shown how to make the transition to high-tech economies in a short period by prioritising innovation.

"At a very basic level, these countries understand that the basis of competitiveness is shifting," he said, adding that as countries become richer they find that competitive advantages are to be found in new ideas rather than natural resources.

Dutta said the pace of innovation has been shaken up by the communications technology revolution. "The poor have access to technology and are adapting it to the local environment. It's no longer just the rich who have high-tech communication tools like mobile applications," he said.

China has done in six years what the West did in 40 years thanks to its ability to absorb and improve on existing technology, said Dutta.

Jonathan Sallet of the University of Colorado said regional clusters are the key to leveraging investment in innovation by using public money to attract private investment.

Companies in clusters create more patents, are more productive, generate more employment and pay better than those situated outside clusters, he said.

He said the Obama administration is launching unprecedented supports for clusters across the US, adding that public support is more important than ever in times of austerity.

"There is a need to cut budgets, which is tough. Every existing programme has its champions and a constituency which is dependent on it. They will defend what's currently in place. But cluster policy is new. I think the role of policymakers is to think about the champions and constituencies of the future," Sallet said.

He said clusters provide "more bang for fewer bucks" because they can leverage investment 10-fold. Sallet also stressed that clusters are inherently international and this trend will continue thanks to information technology.

Innovation has taken centre stage in EU policymaking, with Brussels placing research, education and the Innovation Union flagship at the heart of the 'Europe 2020' plan for growth and job creation.

The Innovation Union stressed the importance of patent reform and new sources of finance in helping get more of Europe's ideas "from research to retail".

The 'Creativity and Innovation' manifesto, published last year as part of the European Year of Creativity and Innovation (EYCI), stressed the importance of education in instilling an innovative mindset.

One of the ambassadors of the EYCI said university graduates are becoming less creative thanks to education reforms led by Brussels.

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