Thursday, 5 January 2012

OK, so Britain's universities earn a lot...

Well, if we didn't know already (and I've been arguing this for years), it's clear given new(ish) figures that Britain's universities are one of the country's key export sectors.

Leave aside improvements in productivity due to 'upsklling'. Leave aside the impact on creative industries or tourism (not inconsiderable). Leave aside even the increased earnings of graduates. Just have a look at Britain's trade accounts.

Universities earned about £8.3bn abroad for the UK last year - a figure that Universities UK (admittedly the sector's pressure group) thinks might about double by 2025.

Where does that put Britain's universities? Well, using 2009/10 figures for physical trade (the last really easily available and reliable, and since which university earnings haven't risen all that quickly) that makes universities the equivalent of the country's sixth biggest export earner - just below engines, but just above aerospace.

This doesn't match the perhaps £35bn that the City of London brought into the country in 2010 - but it is above 'professional services' (accountancy, insurance, legal advice and so on). And it is a hefty individual slice of the £500m or so that we export overall.

They're earnings, though, that come with a paradox: that the more nakedly one tries to exploit them, and the more desperately UK state and society try to rack up the gains, the cash might dry up. Witness the University of Wales foreign accreditation fiasco. Desperate to earn money? Partnering up with dodgy foreign colleges might not be the best way, as a number of Higher Education Institutions have found to their cost.

The lesson? Universities are important, just in terms of crude overseas earnings. But try to rush change, claw in the cash or run after a quick buck, and you'll pay with reputational damage later. Just ask the London School of Economics (above).

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