James Ashton: A cautionary lesson? Sweden’s technical edge under threat after education reforms

Some think fees for foreign students are having a detrimental effect

Other than the mildest, snow-free winter for decades, dinner-party conversation during a new year break in Sweden was dominated by the country’s education system.

An awful showing in last month’s Pisa results – the OECD’s triennial global measure of reading, maths and science standards among 15-year-olds – sparked a debate that is sure to last until the country’s election in the autumn. Here is the free schools model that has been seen as a solution to Britain’s own education ills. The standard of English spoken by Swedes is exceptional by European standards, but it is youngsters’ grasp of maths that worries parents and university leaders most.

The country has become one of Europe’s hi-tech centres in the last decade because its colleges churn out bright, computer-literate graduates. Now, its open-door policy means the state is groaning under the weight of Iraqi and Somalian refugees who call Stockholm or Malmo home.

One technology entrepreneur I met said his industry lost its edge a couple of years ago when fees for foreign students were introduced at Sweden’s technology-focused colleges, to the benefit of Germany and Estonia, which has lured them instead.

The country is still capable of creating clever companies that have going global written into their DNA – no surprise in a country with just 9 million people. Skype, Spotify and Unibet, a gambling group that quietly employs hundreds of people in south-west London, all have Swedish roots. Many of their peers locate in London when the time comes to raise serious money. The many sources of finance here are one reason why Silicon Roundabout is prospering.

The latest Swedish prospect is Magine, a service that pipes programmes from the TV schedule on to tablets and smartphones, a little reminiscent of how Spotify’s streaming service deconstructed listening to music.

Will Sweden retain first-mover advantage in future? The British Government, which let universities hike tuition fees in 2012, should keep close watch.

Peer-to-peer lenders sense the start of a brave new world

This could be the year when peer-to-peer lending grows up. From April, outfits such as RateSetter, Zopa and Funding Circle, which claim to be filling a gap left by reticent banks, will start to be regulated.

It means that people who lend in a bid to make a better return on their money than that offered by rock-bottom interest rates will be a given a cooling-off period. The individuals and small firms that borrow from them, instead of the banks, will be able to withdraw from deals without penalty.

For his part, Samir Desai, the boss of Funding Circle, can’t wait to follow the new rules if it gives his company greater legitimacy. When we met in his crowded basement office off Fleet Street, it was striking to hear him spell out ambitious plans. After starting up in mid 2010, Funding Circle has just passed the £200m mark for total loans granted. When you consider that anything from £7bn to £14bn is lent to small businesses every month, its £16m monthly run-rate is a drop in the ocean. But Mr Desai foresees the day when he could be lending billions, not millions.

As well as regulation which he believes can help his cause, another step-change will come when he can persuade institutions to invest through him. Unlike retail backers, they will be happier to see their funds put to work internationally, which explains why Mr Desai is spending one week in three in America after opening up shop there too.

Be careful what you wish for with the big supermarkets

After a discount Christmas, the bright spots for the retail industry, especially the supermarket chains, came in the form of improving convenience-store trade and online deliveries.

There is a certain irony that careful consumers are putting less in the baskets on the weekly shop, only to be caught short by the end of the week and forced into local top-ups that are invariably more expensive. While they are happy to capture more of these last-minute dashes, supermarket bosses must put their thinking caps on as to how to keep big-box stores busy too.

Footfall at out-of-town centres is holding up better than on most high streets, but it is all relative. Tesco chief Philip Clarke, who reported that his larger stores had been quieter, is already giving over space to coffee shops Harris + Hoole and family restaurant chain Giraffe to lure in shoppers.

Meanwhile, Kingfisher has sub-let half of its B&Q store in Kent to Asda – one of 18 outlets where it is in talks with planning authorities to share with someone else. Boss Sir Ian Cheshire believes he can retain  80 per cent of the sales with half the space in some locations, which can do a lot for profit when rent, rates, heating and lighting costs are taken into account.

The space race is over. With the trend for smaller stores and, more markedly, a continued boom in internet shopping, it can’t be long before retailers close some of their large-format stores instead of just curtailing new openings. Would the communities who campaigned against their arrival celebrate or commiserate if Tesco chose to leave?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
football
Life and Style
health
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

£50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

£13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

£40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own