Beyond Auto Exports in the Great Lakes

by John Austin | August 25, 2010

What the Great Lakes region exports to the world now is, mostly, cars. But its rich network of universities and medical complexes may be one of the best bets for its export future.

A recently released University Research Center report documents how Michigan’s leading universities are helping to move its manufacturing base to more diverse and higher end advanced products in energy components, pharmaceuticals, sensors, circuits and robotics. This push can help overcome the region’s innovation deficit.

Elsewhere my Brookings colleague Mark Muro and University of Michigan President Emeritus Jim Duderstadt have demonstrated that these leading universities are natural centers for the nation’s energy technology problem-solving, desperately needed to lower carbon levels and foster energy independence while creating new green jobs at home.

But the Great Lakes’ top universities, often joined to world class medical complexes, and along with the region’s leading private health research and treatment centers in the region (Mayo and Cleveland Clinic)--are emerging as export leaders and significant new global commerce-builders in their own right.

In the latest rankings compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China’s premier research university (it wants to benchmark the competition), 16 of the top 100 universities in the world are in the Great Lakes region (more than any other comparable geography).

These institutions provide high-value education and medical services to customers from around the world and are extending their operations and services on a global basis.

In the 2008-2009 academic year, the colleges and universities in the 21 largest Great Lakes metros educated over 84,000 foreign students, who spent approximately $2.3 billion in tuition and living expenses. The Cleveland Clinic and University of Michigan hospitals attract thousands of foreign residents for specialized treatment every year.

And these institutions also have a strong presence abroad. Rochester, Minnesota’s world-renowned Mayo Clinic International puts resident fellows in clinical rotations in dozens of countries throughout the world.  The Cleveland Clinic has a medical school in Abu Dhabi; Carnegie Mellon has a Doha campus for undergraduate computer science and business, and Doha is also home to a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center franchise. The University of Michigan’s top-ranked engineering school has research and learning partnerships with over 30 of China’s leading universities, and its Ross School of Business has satellite operations in Eastern Europe.

These satellites don’t show up in the Great Lakes export numbers, but they do draw customers to the home institutions in the Great Lakes and build invaluable cultural knowledge, commercial, and personal relationships that further grease global commerce.

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