Silver lining

The economic crisis, which is apparently affecting the United Kingdom more than most other countries, is generating some unexpected benefits for the public and not-for-profit sectors in the form of substantially increased applications for training courses and jobs. According to a newspaper report, overall applications for teacher training are up by 2 per cent, with inquiries up by 40 per cent since March 2008. The intake of much-needed trainees in mathematics teaching has risen, as has that of teachers aged over 25. The civil service, for its part, reports that applications for 2009 entry to the high-flying fast-stream are 33 per cent more than they were for the previous year. The strongest rise in interest has come from finance sector professionals. One factor behind the reversed trend is undoubtedly the prospect of secure jobs, solid careers, and pensions, offsetting the low salaries of British public services in comparison with the upper reaches of the private sector. The gap began to widen in the 1980s with the Thatcherite hatred of most things public and the U.K. government’s support for the financial sector rather than the real economy. The question is whether similar recruitment trends will be seen in countries like India in response to the sharp economic slowdown.

The new pattern confirms significant ideological points. First, there are limits to the insecurity that free-market ideologues often claim is a spur to productivity. Secondly, many of those who are moving from the private to the public sector have nothing like the ideological dislike of the public sector that, according to the current orthodoxy, is the great achievement of the last three decades. The world’s mainstream press has played its part by not reporting persistent evidence that the public supports good public services. For example, in the U.K., repeated surveys even at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s electoral success showed that 75 per cent of the people strongly supported public health and public education and, furthermore, opposed privatisation of the major utilities. Thirdly, the proclaimed public benefits of self-interest are much less important even to private sector staff than they are made out to be. Several of the most successful new recruits to the public sector have said that they also want to give something back to society. The implications of these recruitment trends for society and the public good are important. The tragedy is that it takes looming economic catastrophe to demonstrate this to a world that has been ruled by unrestrained free market dogma, not to say hysteria, for three decades and more.

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