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Six Reasons Why UK Government Shouldn't Give Free PCs To Pupils

When the government steps in to help a particular sector, it is often welcomed with a great amount of relief (as it was the case for the bailing out of British banks) or with suspicion, as it is the case for Monday's announcement that it will fork out a massive GBP300 million to equip up to 150,000 families with IT equipment and broadband.

This, we reckon, is like trying to write on a traditional blackboard with a whiteboard marker. An ill-thought, ill-prepared and ultimately expensive venture that won't solve a systemic problem. We've found six reasons why the government shouldn't push ahead with this scheme.

(1) It is not cost-worthy

Jim Knight quoted GBP300 million for the programme. To put this in perspective, building 48 new colleges across Northern Ireland cost the Government GBP 380 million and benefited more than 22,000 students. In addition, at GBP 2000 per head (based on the minister's figure) for one year, it is quite onerous.

(2) It Adds To The Cost and Distort The Market

Computers are not expensive but having a scheme like the one proposed by the government is. Such a programme will need people to be manned, will take time, will add another layer of red tapping and bureaucracy which means that by the time some computer packages are approved, their prices would already go down. And what will happen after the first year? Who will pay for the broadband?

(3) Parents Just Above the Threshold Will Miss Out

What about working parents who earn between GBP 16,000 and GBP 20,000 and who are not on Income support? They will miss out which will create a subtle but real buffer zone whereby lower earning families will actually have a higher disposable income. In addition, what will happen to families taking part in the scheme and who transition from lower to higher income bracket and vice versa?

(4) Computers Alone will not solve education woes

In a statement, the Education ministry said that "Home access is increasingly becoming an essential part of a good education and having a computer with internet access should be seen as equally essential as having a school bag, a uniform or a pen and paper." Call me old school, but tens of millions of students worldwide manage perfectly well without a computer, let alone internet access. Why not buy more books or launch more libraries instead to serve a wider community?

In a scenario that resembles that of the OLPC project, the UK government could be shooting for the wrong target as it hopes that ICT alone is going to stop UK from sliding down from international educational rankings. The Programme For International Student Assessment, PISA, carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showed that UK students dropped by 16 positions in Maths and 10 in literacy.

(5) Why not revive Home Computer Initiative Instead?

Back in April 2006, the government killed the Home Computer Initiative, certainly one of the more popular ICT projects undertaken by the current government and which in comparison did not cost the taxpayers any monnies. Although it was not directly targetted at low income earners, it did "people on lower salaries doing admin-type work or working in schools as dinner ladies" to get their first computers (at least in Darlington Borough Council (opens in new tab)).

(6) Other options are more viable

Expansys sells an Asus EEE PC 701 Surf for only £130.20 + VAT. This is a perfectly well equiped laptop with a webcam and Linux OS and has won rave reviews. It would be ideal for students who could carry their laptops to school. In addition, a one-year mobile broadband internet can cost as little as £6.38 + VAT at Three (opens in new tab). Carphone Warehouse is also selling a Laptop with mobile broadband for only £16.17 + VAT per month. That's around 50 p per day or £3.50 per week, hardly back breaking. That's roughly two pints of lager in a pub or a pack of 20 dirt-cheap ciggies. What about recycling end of life computer from UK businesses and while giving job to young out of work adults?

Possibly a better alternative would be to offer an interest free loan for parents who want to purchase internet and computer packages. Even if the government commits £300 million and assuming a 50 percent default ra

te, there would still be a million laptops and mobile broadband connections out there, seven times what the government is suggesting. When a comparable Personal Computer Scheme loan was introduced in Mauritius in the 1990's, computer penetration per 1000 quadrupled in a few years.

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.