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Our universities aren't a cost, they're an opportunity

Cameron has stated that we need to value our universities as export opportunities. He's absolutely right! So why are they still facing cuts and other economic strictures? Why aren't we pouring money into them to help them expand as any other great export potential instead of starving them of what they need to grow?

British universities, and indeed other world-famous academic institutions like many of our 'public' schools, boast at least 800 years of history. Oxford and Cambridge in particular are in the world's Top 5 places to send the planet's youth. Entry competition is fierce. In pure business terms demand vastly exceeds supply. I have heard stats like 400 applicants for every place offered. So in business terms again that means there's a massive market for high quality education. BUT BRITISH PEOPLE ARE NOT ALLOWED TO PAY FOR IT LIKE FOREIGNERS CAN. The 'fairness' of our system of selection requires everyone to be judged on merit alone, which is right, but only if these institutions aren't allowed to expand to their natural capacity potential. In other words to offer unrestricted volumes of quality education to 1) State supported British students who merit further education, 2) Foreign students whose state/parents want to pay for them, and 3) Parents / other sponsors, eg companies, who want to pay for someone to attend. 

The issue is prioritisation. We regard our education establishment as a service to our community, a cost, and not as an industry that the world might want to buy. Our state needs to pay for our youth to be educated. That is clear. But to afford the very best, for the maximum number, we need to spend more than we can afford. So who's going to generate the money in the future so we can afford the things we need?

Up until the 15th century, our economy was broadly isolated. Little international trade occurred, so little extra wealth drifted back into our economy. All we had was the money that was in circulation at the time and which wafted from people to state according to the whims of those in power (sovereign/aristocracy/church etc) and factors such as the weather, population fluctuations (wars/disease). From the 16th century onwards, international trade became an increasingly important contributor to the wealth of the nation. In the 19th century, manufacturing industries became the muscle behind our growth, and combined with our overseas markets and sources of raw materials, helped us amass fortunes. But we soon weren't alone. Many other nations followed the same path and by early the 20th century, the UK was one of a dozen or so nations whose citizens enjoyed equivalent lifestyles.

But we fought back economically. Waves of prosperity led by technology, North Sea oil and eventually financial services, kept propelling the UK into the top (G)8 nations on the planet. But in each case, either our competitiveness, or our resources dried up, and we patiently awaited the next 'boom'. So what do we have as a nation that the world wants to buy, to help us earn foreign currency, to pay down our huge debts, so we can pay for all the education our young require? Well there's not a lot left. Financial services are still important, and their day will return, but many financial corporations are looking at places like Switzerland to exploit low taxes, or Hong Kong for proximity to growing economies. So even though London sits on an important global time line between West and East, its importance is waning on our never-sleeping digitally connected planet. 

There's no natural successor to our former wealth generators. So what does the world want to buy that we have in spades? Education! We hit well above our weight with many universities in the top 20 and our exceptional boarding schools are unique on the planet. But as a nation we don't like foreigners 'depriving' our kids of their education. Well tough. The only way we can pay for them all is by earning the money by selling stuff to foreigners, and that includes education. Treat education like a business. Market it properly! Today the export of our institutions is either left up to the British Council, an under-funded bunch of civil servants who are largely ex-academics and administrators reporting to the dept for education, where they ought to be marketeers reporting to the dept for trade! Alternatively some universities try to selectively market on their own. They're not business experts, nor do they individually have the funds to do a great global job.

So why would Indian, Chinese or Russian parents want to send their children, if its occurred to them, to the UK to be educated? Quite simply, they want the best they can afford for their little darlings. They also want to know they will be safe (more CCTVs than any country on Earth), well fed (huge selection of restaurants and universally safe food / water), able to communicate easily (English is the world's language of business and technology), reachable (biggest airports in the world) and happy (truly multi-cultural secular society).

So why aren't we investing massively in expanding our educational industry as one of the very few opportunities we have left to earn serious export wealth?

UK Education is not a cost, it's an opportunity!! Give us your youth, and we'll empower them to empower you.

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