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America’s Next Export Industry: Online Education

Widener Library, Harvard University 2009. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Widener Library, Harvard University 2009

Harvard’s undergraduate college went entirely online this fall. So did Princeton’s. Yale’s is mostly online. The UK’s Cambridge University will stay online throughout the 2020-2021 school year. Other big-name colleges are following suit: if it can be done online, it will be done online. Elite universities, once the last bastion of the small seminar, are now leading the charge online. Some non-US universities have suspended in-person lectures indefinitely.

Once the preserve of for-profit universities and big state schools, online education has now gone upmarket. And having been forced to invest heavily in online education this year, America’s top ten or twenty universities will want to cash in on those investments after the coronavirus crisis has passed. When education returns to normal, they will bring back the small seminars for which they are famous. But they won’t unplug their online courses.

Elite universities have long had money-spinning colleges of “general studies” geared toward local adult students and taught by adjunct faculty. In the post-virus future, those off-campus campuses will be marketed to a global audience, and taught by world-famous professors. They will maintain high admission standards, but they will expand enrolments by orders of magnitudes. Once limited by the size of their classrooms and residence halls (and the drive to keep student-faculty ratios low), elite universities will increasingly look to expand their revenue bases.

For American universities, this is a concern, but not too much of one. There are many elite universities in the United States, and although smaller colleges might feel the pinch (and many already have), universities lower down the list can seek to take back the students who have drifted away to for-profit providers. There will be a shake-out in the US university sector, but it will be evolutionary, not catastrophic. American universities are used to competing, and most will find their niche.

It’s a different story internationally. Can your country’s top university compete with Harvard? If not, your country might not have a top university much longer. Its best students will be studying in the Ivy League — without ever leaving the country. If Harvard poaches from Michigan and Chapel Hill, the structure of the American university system will change, but the system itself will remain strong. But if Harvard poaches from the University of Tokyo and the Australian National University, the overall strength of the Japanese and Australian systems might be compromised.

The post-coronavirus shift online means that education is set to become a major export industry for the United States, and not just in the purely technical sense that it counts as “exports” to take tuition money from students who come to the country to study. American universities are the best in the world, the best-ranked, and at least a decade ahead in e-learning practices and technology. If the market for educational services remains as open as it is right now (and there don’t seem to be any efforts afoot to close it), look for American universities to start recruiting overseas next fall. Only they won’t be looking for a select few to come study on campus. They’ll be looking for a mass-market online.


Written By

Salvatore Babones (@sbabones) is “Australia’s globalization expert” and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.