Higher Education: A Gold Star in the Special Relationship

09/19/2011 01:54 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011

It's beginning to look a lot like autumn here in Washington. The weather has turned cooler, and although the leaves have yet to start falling, the streets are filled with a different kind of yellow: buses taking children back to school. As grade schools and college campuses fill up with eager young scholars, tens of thousands of Americans will study abroad at a UK university and experience life across the Atlantic.

Here at the Embassy, we are marking the new school year with a special event: a reception for a group of 33 Marshall Scholars about to experience our world-class educational exchanges at first hand. The Marshalls programme awards up to 40 scholarships a year for promising graduate students in the US to study at UK universities. This year's class hails from every region and type of institution in the United States. The Marshalls programme is funded by the British Government -- historically it started as an act of gratitude from the British to the American people for American generosity in rebuilding the British and European economies after the Second World War. But today it's our flagship government education programme, focused on cultural exchange and the leaders of the future.

These scholars will become part of the 45,000 Americans who study abroad in the UK each year and make my country America's top destination for international study. The US is our top choice when studying abroad as well, with nearly 9,000 of our citizens studying at American universities. This makes sense -- higher education in the US and UK is at the head of the class: more than 60 percent of the world's top universities are in either the US or UK.

Our universities are producing A-plus research. This year, four of the six Nobel laureates in Physics, Chemistry, and Physiology are British nationals or are affiliated with UK universities; the Chemistry prize went to collaborative work conducted by UK and US researchers. Our government is backing research with public money: each year, the UK Research Councils invest more than $4 billion in projects around the UK, part of the $42 billion we spend on higher education generally. Given higher education's nearly $93 billion impact on the UK economy, that is a very creditable bang for our buck.

We're supporting research and higher education because breakthroughs in science and innovation aren't matters to be confined to a laboratory or a research journal. They are what will fuel the twenty-first century economy. Whether it's clean energy, nanotechnology, or space exploration--or even a field we haven't yet imagined -- bringing new ideas to market will create jobs and grow our economies. The UK has made it easier for someone's good idea to become a profitable one. We've lowered the tax rate on new patents, and reformed our process for protecting intellectual property. Our message to innovators, wherever they're from, is simple: Britain is open and ready for business.

Next week, I will visit two regions that receive top marks in higher education and high-tech innovation: Washington State and the San Francisco Bay area. Seattle is home to some of the global leaders in technology and e-commerce, including Amazon, Expedia, and Microsoft. The University of Washington is working with UK universities on biophysics and environmental health research. As for the work being done in Silicon Valley, it has changed every facet of how we live, and the schools in the area -- whether private universities like Stanford, or campuses of the University of California system -- are some of the most respected in the world.

But educational exchanges are about much more than what they achieve in tangible results. The university experience is about broadening horizons. Studying and working at one another's universities educates our future leaders not just in their academic field, but in how others think, and what we value. That's the wider cultural meaning. Americans who study in the UK and Britons who study in the US are carrying the special relationship forward for future generations.