When considering the powerhouses of the British economy, most people’s minds flick to the City, or perhaps pharmaceuticals or retail. Yet it’s British universities – the envy of the world – which have the potential to save the British economy.
Higher education is the UK’s secret industrial powerhouse. UniversitiesUK suggests that our universities are responsible for generating 650,000 jobs, and contribute £60bn to UK GDP. In London alone, our international students are estimated to support over 100,000 jobs – roughly one per student.
And it’s a rapidly growing international market. In 2010, the number of students in tertiary education worldwide rose to 178m; the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimates that, in 2011, education exports were worth £17.5bn to the UK economy – 75 per cent of which come from international students studying in Britain.
For a nation of our size, to have so many universities represented in the global top ten is a triumph. Yet the coalition’s ambition for developing the sector is a modest 20 per cent over the next five years. With recognised brands and high quality education, we should be far more ambitious.
We should be aiming to create an industry that supports a million jobs across the UK over the next decade, building a sector worth hundreds of billions to the British economy. We would see immediate impact on our economy and of course an associated increase in our research, which in turn would fuel innovation, creating many more exciting businesses, like Spirogen – the Biotech sold to AstraZeneca a few weeks ago for $460m (£282m).
Of course, part of the approach must involve an increase in overseas students coming to the UK to study at our institutions. To achieve this, universities need to work more closely together to help penetrate new international markets.
Yet we should also aspire to making the UK the leading provider of education for students in their own countries. This could be through setting up international campuses. But the truly exciting prospect for growth is the potential which technology gives us for expanding capacity to reach more of those 178m students worldwide. From being the workshop of the world, Britain can become its classroom.
The much-hyped Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were dealt a near-fatal blow last month, when Sebastian Thrun (co-founder of MOOC-provider Udacity), said his company’s courses are often a “lousy product”. But we must harness the power of technology to develop distance and blended learning and other educational products. Investors and government must get behind the key players – for example by providing universities with growth capital specifically to develop this element of their market. The returns could be substantial.
Some suggest that education is a magic bullet for social change and that Britain is a global leader in higher education. We need the ambition, imagination and investment to convert this unique position into economic sustainability – while we still can.