Listening to an Education Week webinar with Allison Powell from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) and Robert Spielvogel, from the Education Development Center, I learned something important that I had not realized before – we (Americans) have something that the rest of the world wants: education. That's right, the U.S. and U.K. are two of the world's largest exporters of education. But what does this mean for higher education? And how can we take this little known fact and make it a major part of our national economic strategy?
The first question that occurred to me when I heard that education was a significant export was; "What aspects of education are we actually sending abroad?" The main source of education "exports" for both the UK and the U.S. is technically not exported at all. It seems that when foreign students attend British or American schools, the money they spend on tuition, books, etc. counts as an export. This expenditure alone accounted for more than $20.2 billion in the U.S. in 2010-2011 (Istrate, Nov. 17, 2011) and a significant portion of the 29 billion pounds of U.K. educational exports (Powell, 2012). This figure came from the nearly 700,000 foreign students enrolled in U.S. higher education and more than 400,000 in the U.K. (U.K. Council for International Student Affairs).
Where the U.K. is far ahead of the U.S., however is in the actual exporting of educational materials such as digital textbooks, online curriculums, and the like. Powell reported that the U.K. has a significant contract in place through which they export a large quantity of digital content to China (E-Learning Goes Global). The exact value of this business was not revealed, but it comprises a considerable portion of the 29 billion pounds of annual British education exports. China has more than 200 online schools, which serve an estimated 600,000+ students through a digital K-12 curriculum. Much of the material to feed that giant education machine is imported. In addition, the importation of educational material to China is only likely to increase in the immediate future as it is estimated that there are still 100 million new students to be brought into the system (Powell, 2011).
A few innovative U.S. online education providers are beginning to branch out into overseas markets, but there is room for many more at the table.
Getting Our Own Exports Out
The January 30th edition of NPR's On Point discussed the decline of the U.S. as a world superpower and the rise of China's status. The program presented both sides of the issue (that the U.S. is and is not in decline), but one point struck me when the conversation turned to education. Michael Beckley, research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's international security program, made the point that a significant percentage of China's elite students are coming to the U.S. to study – and they are not leaving! His point was that, even if our education system were failing, we are still attracting some of the world's best and brightest and welcoming them as American citizens (NPR, Jan. 30, 2012).
The point that I took away from this observation is that an American education is one of the most desirable commodities that we have to offer in the global marketplace. This observation is supported by my own experiences as graduate student and college administrator, and by several recent articles like this Chronicle piece by Francisco SÃ¡nchez, No Better Export: Higher Education (April 3, 2011) and this New Republic article by Emilia Istrate, America's Stealth Education Export. Both articles point to a rapidly growing number of foreign students pursuing higher education in the U.S. But then that begs the question – if our product is so superior and popular, why aren't we making a more concerted effort, like the U.K., to bring our educational products to others around the world?
Time to Capitalize
I am the first to rail against the evils of capitalism. I think it is the new opiate of the masses – a delusion-inducing drug that makes us follow self-serving leaders like mindless sheep. However, making a significant push towards exporting our online educational offerings seems like a win-win situation to me and to the capitalist establishment.
First, educating more people is a good thing. It is an easy justification for exporting our online e-educational products to the rest of the world because we will be serving a major need, bringing learning to the world and simultaneously fighting poverty, starvation, war, ignorance, and genocide, all the while improving the economic well-being of the entire planet (Marquis, 2012).
Then, on the capitalist score sheet, our own GDP will improve, higher education will gain a much needed financial boost, new markets for other U.S. goods and services will open, and democracy will spread its wings over the world. Okay, so this may be a bit grandiose, but education really is a vast, untapped market and a place the American spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship can to flourish. As Beckley very convincingly argued during the On Point discussion, America is not in decline. We just need to get our bearings and begin exporting the American product that the rest of the world really wants – education.