By Tom Still

MADISON – In Australia these days, education has become a booming export business. Universities are expanding offshore and online programs to meet the demands of foreign students – mainly from Asia, the South Pacific and the Middle East – who are eager for courses taught in English.

In fact, offshore education demand is so strong that sale of academic “sheepskins” is rivaling wool as an Australian export industry.

The lessons learned in the land down under should be noted in Wisconsin, a state that is uniquely positioned to profit by leveraging its education assets. Instead of focusing purely on the cost of public education in Wisconsin, state policymakers should instead be urging educators to tap into emerging global and domestic markets.

Developing education as an export industry is a theme that has cropped up in Wisconsin in recent years. Wisconsin Technology Council board members such as John Byrnes of Milwaukee and Jerry Johnson of Bayfield have repeatedly cited the possibilities; Johnson is even organizing an “e-learning” cluster in northwest Wisconsin in hopes of attracting investment and building jobs.

The idea was renewed last week during a Madison forum on Wisconsin’s educational assets, where panelists stressed that few states have the “K-gray” education infrastructure that exists here. What’s needed, they concluded, is a strategy to market Wisconsin’s education system as a commodity, rather than exclusively dwelling on how much it costs.

The Oct. 20 panel was hosted by, the Wisconsin Alumni Association, Apple Computer and the Tech Council, and panelists included leaders from higher education, K-12 teaching, business and government. Panelists agreed that Wisconsin’s education system, top to bottom, is among the best in the United States – and that Wisconsin is missing a chance to develop outside markets for its products.

UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley, one of the panelists, said other states are seizing the chance to market their education systems, rather than looking for ways to cut education budgets. “Education as an export industry – what a concept,” he noted wryly.

Consider Australia: Economists there say education exports are now worth more to the nation’s balance of payments than traditional earners such as wool. Education-related travel services, including student fees and living expenses for foreign students in Australia, have accounted for more than $4 billion in annual revenue since 2000. That’s a three-fold increase over the 1990s, according to a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald. An additional $200 million per year was generated from distance education or overseas campuses.

Australian colleges are opening remote campuses. The University of New South Wales recently announced it would open the first foreign-owned and operated university in Singapore in 2007. Fees charged 3,500 students there will bring in $130 million per year by 2015.

The Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee last year reported than 1,569 offshore programs were offered by Australian universities. That figure is expected to grow dramatically over the next decade. IDP Education Australia, an international consultancy owned by Australian universities, predicts that demand for courses will grow from 102,000 students in 2000 to 1 million students by 2020. China, Malaysia, India and Indonesia will generate two-thirds of the demand.

China will have 3 million students wanting English-language university courses by 2005, while demand in India is expected to rise from 141,700 students to 629,000 within two decades.

Wisconsin’s public and private schools can tap into emerging overseas markets – not to mention the burgeoning national market for continuing education. There is a reason the University of Phoenix, an online educational institution, is one of the fastest-growing schools in the United States.

Education in Wisconsin must be more productive to continue to flourish. Finding new markets for an outstanding product that is currently being consumed locally is one way to boost productivity.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.