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The Rt Hon the Lord Alexander Robertus TODD of Trumpington




The Rt Hon the Lord Alexander Robertus TODD of Trumpington

Doctor of Science
honoris causa

My first duty today is to express the sincere thanks, not only of myself, but of all my fellow graduates for the signal honour which the University of Hong Kong has done us today. Our sense of honour and of gratitude is all the greater since we are all well aware that there is no higher honour a university can confer than an honorary doctorate. As a group, your honorary graduates of today represent a broad spectrum of interests including as they do eminent figures in the law, business and public life. To me has fallen the task of addressing you on their behalf but I cannot adequately do so. I shall therefore confine myself to some personal reflections which I hope may be of at least some interest to you at a time when our universities and other educational institutions are beset by all manner of difficulties and uncertainties.

One is forever hearing that we "live in a technological age". Of course we do! And we always have done since technology is simply the application of discovery or invention to the solution of practical problems. It has been with us ever since primitive man venturing out from the forest on to the open plains, fashioned the first weapons for hunting and later on took up another new technology when he started agriculture. All that has changed recently is the speed and frequency at which advances in technology are occurring. In the past, technological advances depended upon chance discovery or invention; they were accordingly infrequent and as a rule gradual enough to cause little apparent change within the span of a human lifetime. They were accordingly tolerable and over the millennia material civilisation advanced at a slow and stately pace. Life for the individual changed, or seemed to change, very little; its common pattern was a period of apprenticeship in youth which provided all the necessary skill and knowledge which, with quite minor additions, would suffice for the whole of a man's working life. Such change as there was, was barely perceptible to the individual.

This peaceful pattern was, however, rudely disturbed about two hundred years ago with the occurrence of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution triggered a tremendous change in western society but, other than its magnitude, it did not differ from the technological advances of earlier times - it depended simply on the fortuitous coincidence of two or three chance inventions. Of these I consider the most important was that of the steam engine. That invention, incidentally, had nothing to do with science - it rested, like all its predecessors, on chance - but it put into the hands of man, for the first time, almost unlimited mechanical power. As a result, not only did heavy industry become possible but transport and communications was revolutionised and the world seemed to become a much smaller place. A side consequence of this was the rise of the great colonial empires, for the Industrial Revolution began and was for a considerable period localised in Western Europe and North America while many other parts of the globe - and notably the great civilisations of the Orient - were largely unaffected and so fell an easy prey to colonialists.

The initial inventions which sparked off the Industrial Revolution were made in Britain which had, easily accessible and in abundance, the raw materials - coal and iron ore - necessary for their exploitation and a remarkable group of entrepreneurs ready to do the exploitation. With these advantages and the benefit of a stable and settled society based upon a landed aristocracy, Britain forged ahead and, by the middle of the nineteenth century was, quite reasonably, described as the workshop of the world and its growing prosperity was further strengthened by the growth of its great colonial empire. There were, however, - and perhaps because of this meteoric rise - weaknesses of a social and political character which were only later to become apparent and which, in my view, account in a large measure for the economic decline of Britain which has become increasingly evident since the Second World War. The ruling elite of Britain - essentially the landed aristocracy - benefited materially from the new industrial society which arose through the Industrial Revolution but it would not accept industry as socially respectable. The new British industrial entrepreneurs strove to become, or strove to have their offspring become, accepted socially by the ruling elite which, although not immune to the charms of money despised industry although it was prepared, reluctantly, to recognise finance and the professions as tolerable occupations for the gentry. How many entrepreneurs Britain lost as a result may be difficult to estimate, but one thing it did do was to prevent the rise of great technical institutions like those on the European continent and the confident and socially powerful bourgeoisie that arose there and ousted the aristocracy from their hitherto dominant position.

This concentration of talent in finance, the professions and the landed gentry, together with the demands of a growing empire for administrators, not only concealed an industrial slowdown but led to the establishment of a unique educational system involving that peculiarly British phenomenon, the Public School, and the domination of the educational pattern by the very conservative universities of Oxford and Cambridge.  (In this respect Scotland was somewhat less affected than England.)

Had technological advance continued solely on the age-old basis of chance invention or discovery as it had always done in the past, all might have gone well for Britain; but it didn't. The rise in wealth and leisure, brought about by the Industrial Revolution, stimulated the pursuit of natural science which, until then, had been advancing slowly in the hands of amateurs and dilettantes since the so-called Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century without, however, having much impact on everyday life and affairs. With its accelerated growth came something quite new - something of such importance that it could well be called the Second Industrial Revolution. This was the deliberate application of science and the results of scientific research to the solution of practical problems - industrial, military and medical in particular. This new phenomenon - science-based technology - has revolutionised our society by greatly reducing the chance element in discovery and invention, and it has advanced with ever-increasing power and rapidity since then. It is this ever-increasing rate of technological progress that is the source, not just of the comforts in life we now enjoy, but also of the social strains and political instability which beset humanity today.

In my view, it was during the second half of the nineteenth century that the seeds of Britain's economic decline were sown, for it failed to take full advantage of this new science-based technology. The reasons for this failure are doubtless complex; in part it may have been due to Britain seemingly so industrially secure and in part because any weaknesses were concealed by the wealth flowing from its colonial empire. Whatever the other reasons, there can be no doubt that its peculiar education system geared to an elitist and essentially anti-industrial society played a large part. Be that as it may, while the great technical and engineering universities of Europe and America forged ahead and with them the new science-based industries, Britain lagged behind. There science was treated as a kind of amateur pursuit and contact between it and industry - and even education - was frowned upon. For the new world opening up through science-based technology Britain's educational system was clearly unsuited. Educational patterns, however, rest on social attitudes which are always very slow to change and so the complete overhaul of Britain's educational system, which was necessary, did not occur. True, the new civic universities made an effort to promote science and engineering but they had only limited success. The real extent of Britain's decline only became apparent in the second half of this century, having been concealed until then by victories in two world wars and by an Empire which did not undergo serious dissolution until the 1940s.

That something ought to be done about the British educational system was already widely recognised in the 1950s, and in particular our need to have many more scientists and engineers. I well recall how in those days, we were continually bombarded with tables showing the percentage of each age group receiving university education in different countries; no definition of "university" was given in these tables and so Britain was found, as a rule, near the bottom of these tables in the same sort of area as the new but still rather primitive developing countries. So the cry went up - we must have more university places. From this agitation came the Robbins Committee on Higher Education and the approximate doubling of the number of institutions given the title of "university". Alas, as could have been predicted, and as I indeed predicted at the time, most of these new universities - sometimes called "plate-glass universities" - were, and still are, small and have not broken away from our traditional university pattern. As a result we are still too elitist in our approach to higher education and still suffer from a sad lack of high grade scientists, technologists and technicians in our industries. This is perhaps less surprising than one might expect for educational changes are a consequence and not a cause of changes in social attitudes.

By now some of you may well be asking - but what has all this got to do with Hong Kong and the university of which I have today become an alumnus? I think it has a great deal to do with them.

The University of Hong Kong has a proud record going back to its foundation in 1911 as a colonial university on the pattern of the civic universities of England. Its resemblance to those universities was, and remains, close; it is similar in pattern and in entry requirements (which latter have had a major influence on local patterns of secondary education). This adherence to British patterns with, as we now see it, inadequate emphasis on science and technology, has no doubt been a major factor in the development of Hong Kong as a major financial and commercial centre. But the phenomenal success of Hong Kong during the past quarter of a century has not been due simply to its growth as a financial and commercial centre. Manufacturing industry has contributed even more to the gross domestic product (as also have services, tourism, hotels, etc.). Hong Kong entered the post-war era as a developing country too small to live on its natural resources but with a large and growing population of hard-working people who had, or could readily acquire, great manual skill and dexterity. It therefore chose, as most developing countries do, to capitalise on its plentiful supply of cheap skilled labour and took with great success to the textile and garment industries. There its success has been tremendous but that very success has diminished the ease with which it can compete with others (for example, Korea) coming later to the same field. Accordingly we have seen a repeat performance with the move to toys, clocks and electronic items (largely copied from products originating in more highly developed countries such as the USA and Japan). Whether such a process of development could have continued for long even if science and technology had remained more or less static, I would not care to say, but it has occurred just as another major technological advance tantamount to a Third Industrial Revolution has burst upon us - one whose ultimate effect cannot yet be foreseen. I refer, of course, to the so-called information technology, based on electronics and the computer whose influence spreads far beyond the realm of information. Coupled with the spectacular advances in biology made in recent years which have produced the new and exciting field of biotechnology, we have moved and continue to move into the fields of high technology. There manual dexterity alone will not suffice - we need a highly-trained and educated workforce at all levels if we are to stay in the van of progress; and we can do so if we have the will and the courage, for surely in the people of Hong Kong we have our fair share of gifted people who, given the right training and support, can lead it into an era of prosperity greater than it has ever known.

I shall not attempt in this address to specify the changes which I believe are necessary in secondary and higher education. I know there has been much talk recently about expansion in higher education in Hong Kong. But a mere extension of what we do now is not enough - deep-seated changes are needed. But there is one area which could and should be fostered forthwith and which should be much more liberally financed by government than it now is. I refer, of course, to scientific and technological research in our
universities and polytechnics. Provision for them is at present inadequate and the need to improve it is a matter of urgency. Only with strong research at the top can Hong Kong ensure its future in the opening world of high technology as it looks ahead to the end of this century and to the great possibilities which will arise through association with a developing China.

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