David Willetts, who used to be called “Two Brains” by his political friends, even before he became Minister for Universities and Science in 2010, is saying something that is both silly and non-silly in my paper today. The headline of the story is: “Selling education to the Chinese is no different from selling cars.”
In one respect, this is plain silly, because we didn’t have to sell education to the Chinese. Rich people started sending their sons (mainly) to England voluntarily, as other rich people sent sons to American schools and universities. They did so for obvious reasons. English, whether it’s English-English or American-English is already the international business and scientific language of the world, so why not learn it in as authentic a setting as possible so that Chinese-English is also understandable in any country in the world? And, at the same time, their sons can make friends with other rich men’s sons and this may be useful later. Mind you, since the Chinese started coming over here some of our schools and universities have been falling over themselves in wanting to make even more money by going to China just like car salesmen.
In another respect, selling education to the Chinese is quite different from selling cars because high personal skills such as teaching can’t be copied while cars can be. If we sell cars one day to China, they may be making identical ones in a fortnight’s time. And this, of course, is the reason why all valuable trade in the future will be of services, not products. In the years to come, when there’s full-blown automation and when intensive competition has driven all profit margins down to nearly zero — that is, when transportation becomes a significant cost in the final price of the product — then most standard products will be made locally. But services — if they are of the highest personal skills and thus, fee levels — will still have to be travelled to by customers, as they are now.