To my mind, having studied history, the equation is simple: a strong economy is dependent on control of the latest technology, which relies on strong basic science, and requires a core of well-educated scientists, engineers and mathematicians.
The British education system of the 60's and 70's that served me so well was very pragmatic: identify the students with obvious ability and work ethic, and pay them to learn. It was a cruel, elitist pressure cooker, but it produced the best university graduates in the world.
It has been replaced by a more inclusive American model. Standards are down, and many students are now under a crushing debt burden.
Why exactly did we change it?