The "Great Brain Race" in Global Higher Education

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 8/19/2010 12:23:00 AM
Global higher education is a topic of obvious interest to me since I will soon need to find more permanent university employment. However, my personal circumstances aside, there are obvious reasons why higher education should be followed by IPE scholars. First, higher education is a significant industry in itself, especially if countries can attract many full fee-paying foreign students. UK universities, for instance, claims that higher education makes a £59 billion contribution to annual GDP. Second, it is commonly believed that cutting-edge education can increase national competitiveness. For instance, while the UK has slashed funding for its universities, which are almost entirely public unlike those in the US, cuts have not been levelled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. These STEM subjects are supposedly key to maintaining and building competitiveness compared to, say, political science and English majors whose worth is less obvious. Third, the shifting balance of who gets what, when, and where in terms of the best and brightest students and instructors also suggest how the balance of global economic activity is shifting.

With regard to the latter, the most interesting phenomenon in recent times has been the eagerness of US and UK universities as well as others in the West to establish satellite operations in emerging countries. As with most things, marketing plays a role. One of the most successful and enterprising of British universities, for instance, is Nottingham. Not only do they have a campus in Ningbo, China that is relatively free from state interference--a colleague tells me he had no trouble getting a copy of Jung Chang's state-banned Mao: The Unknown Story for its library--but they set up another campus in Malaysia last year. If imitation is flattery, the signature building of the Ningbo campus pictured above is similar to that of the original campus.

I needn't belabour the point that most US institutions of higher education are feeling the pinch just as those in the UK are. With nearly all US states in poor fiscal shape, programmes there are being hacked and slashed like they are here. What's more, private institutions have not had it much better insofar as their endowments were badly hit by the financial crisis. These are pretty crappy times for Western academic institutions indeed. The Christian Science Monitor has an excellent article on the bedraggled state of American higher education.

Certainly, while Anglophone institutions still dominate university league tables worldwide, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the landscape is much changed in, say, the next 20 years. Aside from the usual suspects China and India, regional powerhouses like Hong Kong and Singapore look promising, as do free-spending Middle East countries. New Zealand is certainly no slouch in marketing higher education. For an interesting read on our changing educational milieu, do read Ben Wildavsky's new book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World. You can view a YouTube clip where Wildavsky introduces his book, while the following is the press blurb. Interestingly, the author does not see a winner-takes-all situation emerging, but one where shared global knowledge has the potential to be the rising tide that lifts all boats:
In The Great Brain Race, former U.S. News & World Report education editor Ben Wildavsky presents the first popular account of how international competition for the brightest minds is transforming the world of higher education--and why this revolution should be welcomed, not feared. Every year, nearly three million international students study outside of their home countries, a 40 percent increase since 1999. Newly created or expanded universities in China, India, and Saudi Arabia are competing with the likes of Harvard and Oxford for faculty, students, and research preeminence. Satellite campuses of Western universities are springing up from Abu Dhabi and Singapore to South Africa. Wildavsky shows that as international universities strive to become world-class, the new global education marketplace is providing more opportunities to more people than ever before.

Drawing on extensive reporting in China, India, the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, Wildavsky chronicles the unprecedented international mobility of students and faculty, the rapid spread of branch campuses, the growth of for-profit universities, and the remarkable international expansion of college rankings. Some university and government officials see the rise of worldwide academic competition as a threat, going so far as to limit student mobility or thwart cross-border university expansion. But Wildavsky argues that this scholarly marketplace is creating a new global meritocracy, one in which the spread of knowledge benefits everyone--both educationally and economically.