Higher Education: A Global Contest

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 8/16/2007 02:33:00 PM
Pardon me for my seemingly boundless interest in the globalization of higher education. As a doctoral candidate about to finish up, I am of course interested in possibly pursuing an academic career. Whereas before aspiring young academics would look to build a career in the traditional powerhouses of America and Western Europe (I have studied and taught in both places), the possibilities are much broader now. Canada and Australia offer first-rank universities, and Asian universities with money to burn are now appearing on the global scene in Singapore, Hong Kong, and India. It's certainly an exciting time for this mobile would-be academic.

Surprisingly, however, there has not been much academic research done on international higher education, and I intend to do more research into this most interesting area. Given all the sermons you hear from economists about the importance of education in development and even international "competitiveness," it is a growth area. It also concerns governments pushing their universities' interests in attracting big-spending foreign students to their shores. Of course, international education is big money. To attract donors and students, you need to have exceptional facilities and professors. Of course, these things do not come cheap. Fortunately for us, Newsweek has not been slacking off on the job of tracking the evolution of international higher education like, well, higher education (how embarrassing). Last year, Newsweek featured a series of articles [1, 2, 3, 4] on the topic and the current issue also contains more [1, 2, 3, 4]. Below is the quite comprehensive lead feature:
It looks like a rock video. as techno music pounds in the background, attractive young Asians break-dance, play guitar and pump their fists in the air. Yet this is no dance track. It's an ad: part of the U.S. government's new campaign to attract Chinese students to U.S. colleges and universities. The video—which has been shown to more than 180 million Chinese TV viewers since November—also features students taking notes in class, playing in a marching band and cheerleading. The message: America loves Chinese students. It's the first time in history that Washington has actively marketed its education system overseas, says Frank Lavin, U.S. secretary for international trade, who is heading the campaign. "Attracting the best students from around the world is more competitive than ever," explains Lavin, "So we are making a special effort to reach out."

They're not the only ones. The days are long gone when the world's best schools—Harvard and Yale, Cambridge and Oxford—could rest on their laurels and expect the best students to come to them. Today, a variety of trends are utterly reshaping the educational landscape. Governments across the globe, especially in China and India, are pouring unprecedented sums into building and improving their universities, and are spending millions more selling them abroad. Europe is unifying its fractured system to make it more attractive. Private universities are springing up where they never existed, throughout developing nations. The stakes in the ever-tightening race could not be higher: with the numbers of internationally-minded students growing exponentially, schools and nations must do all they can to lure them in—both for economic and intellectual reasons. State funding for education is falling in many places, making those fee-paying foreigners look ever more attractive. And importing intellectual capital—or fighting brain drain—can pay off richly.

Ultimately, the winners in the new global education race will be those countries with institutions that are the most international at every level. They will boast multicultural student bodies, elite foreign campuses, offer internationally recognized degrees and, no matter where they're based, will teach in English—still very much the global language of business, research and technology.

For the moment, the United States remains the undisputed world leader, consistently occupying about half the spots in most global rankings of the top 100 universities. But it was also the United States that helped the competition grow so fierce. The attacks of September 11 led to tighter student-visa restrictions—and a widespread feeling that the United States no longer welcomed foreigners. The problem was compounded by a drop in government funding for public universities, weakening second-tier schools. In the three years following September 11, international student enrollment in the United States dropped by up to 2.4 percent a year—the first such losses in 32 years.

Now, however, the United States is rebounding. It's an important comeback: providing higher education to foreign students generated more than $14 billion for the U.S. economy in tuition and living expenses last year alone.

But although the raw numbers are up, some of the changes seem set to stick, and a multipolar educational world looks likely to be the new norm. The proof: America's share of the fast-growing pie of international students—more than 2.5 million people study overseas today—is shrinking. Among the top six host countries, the United States experienced the weakest growth between 2000 and 2005, pulling in just 17 percent more students over that period, compared with 81 percent in France and 108 percent in Japan, according to a recent report from the American Council on Education. In total, America's market share of international students dropped from more than a quarter in 2000 to one fifth in 2004, the latest year for which figures are available.

More evidence of the increased competition today can be found by looking at academia's most prestigious rankings. London's Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) and the Shanghai Jiaotong list are still dominated by Western institutions, with the United States consistently taking eight of the top 10 slots and Britain picking up the remaining two. But beyond the top 10, the rankings are more diverse. "There were no less than 30 different countries represented in our top 200 list this year, and I expect that number to keep growing," says John O'Leary, editor of the THES rankings. Indeed, Beijing University, the National University of Singapore and the University of Tokyo all won top 20 status in the most recent THES ranking.

The best of the challengers are building up their international programs with foreign outposts and joint degree programs. France's famed INSEAD business school, for example, now allows its students to move freely between its French campus and its Singapore location. The international slant has proved such a success that in June, INSEAD launched a joint M.B.A. with China's Tsinghua University.

More and more schools are taking a similar approach. In May, a report by the American Council on Education found that 131 private Indian colleges have established links to foreign universities, and nearly half of Britain's higher-education institutions provide study opportunities in China. Among the dozens of universities with campuses, research labs or partnerships in Singapore are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago and Cornell. This internationalization, says the IIE's president, Allan Goodman, is exactly what all universities need to stay competitive. "Campuses should have their own foreign policies," he says, "and require every undergraduate to get a passport instead of a student ID."

Having a physical presence abroad is more important than ever. Asian countries, the biggest exporters of foreign students to the West, are now pouring resources into homegrown schools in a bid to prevent brain drain. Today, China spends an estimated 0.5 of its annual GDP on higher education, but it plans to bring that share up to 4 percent in coming years—a figure higher than both Europe's 1.1 percent and the United States' 2.7 percent. Earlier this year, Malaysia announced its goal of becoming an international education hub with 100,000 foreign students—double today's number—by 2010. To lure the best professors, Singapore's universities are offering salaries competitive with the best U.S. schools; young academics in the city-state can now earn more than $180,000 a year.

To sweeten the deal for students, many of Asia's most cutting-edge institutions have also started offering entire degrees in English. This is threatening one of the greatest advantages enjoyed by the United States and the United Kingdom. Today's youths are often as keen to gain English fluency as a topnotch diploma; indeed, a European Commission report last year found that Europe's "single major disadvantage in the eyes of Asian students is that English is not the universal mother tongue." To improve their attractiveness, many of Asia's universities are, therefore, adopting English. In South Korea, Underwood International College, Korea University and Ewha Womans University all recently created English-only undergraduate programs. Japan's Waseda University has run an English college since 2004. And many of China's top schools, including Beijing University, are increasing their English-language course offerings every year.

These efforts are paying off, as evidenced by the number of new institutions popping up throughout Asia. Consider this: China has expanded its university system so quickly that more than 20 percent of its college-age population now receives tertiary education—up from less than 2 percent a generation ago. Or this: last month India held its first formal meeting, chaired by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, to plan the $1 billion revival of the country's great ancient university, Nalanda, which was last open in A.D. 1197. "The pace at which China and India are creating higher-education institutions is quite astounding," says Bernd Wachter, director of the Brussels-based Academic Cooperation Association. "And it's not just quantity, it's quality." Indeed, the new institutions are already proving so successful that the EU's commissioner for Education warned in a recent interview that British, French and German universities risk being "overtaken" by those in China and India within a decade if they don't modernize.

To fight back, the world's established homes of higher learning are launching international ad campaigns—something once unthinkable to these venerable institutions. In February, the United States announced that it would spend $1 million to expand its music-video-esque marketing campaign from China to India next year. In Britain, 79 percent of colleges and universities are increasing their marketing and recruitment efforts abroad this year, according to a Universities UK survey released in March. Last month, the French government declared university reform a top priority, vowing to spend €5 billion by 2012 on modernization. In Europe, the much-touted Bologna process promises to standardize higher-education degrees across the entire continent by 2010, giving an internationally recognizable seal of approval to the continent's idiosyncratic diplomas.

Through all these changes, at least one thing has remained constant: the world's biggest name institutions are still everyone's first choice. America's Ivy League universities have huge amounts of cash, and they and Britain's Oxbridge retain huge cachet, which help them continue to procure everything from the finest libraries and laboratories to the best professors and students. "The competition is hotting up, but for the absolute top universities, we can stand tall," says Tim Lankester, president of Oxford's Corpus Christi College, who recently stepped down after three years as the chairman of Oxford's admissions committee. "I don't want to sound complacent, but we offer the best."

But even Britain's best can't compete with the multibillion-dollar treasuries of the Ivy League. At the beginning of this school year, Harvard used its endowment of $28 billion (more than all of Britain's universities combined) to make a move few other schools could afford, announcing that henceforth all students from families making less than $60,000 a year would enjoy a completely free ride. That has made Harvard one of the cheapest options for working- and middle-class students, assuming they can get in, of course.

At the tier just below the very top, however, America and Europe are losing their monopoly on prestigious degrees. "Australia, Canada, Russia and Hong Kong are all higher-education hot spots now," says Catharine Stimpson, dean of New York University. "Everyone wants to be everywhere." And, ultimately, that is exactly where the most successful educational establishments of the future will enable their scholars to be. Get ready for more U.S. students making Beijing home—and more Chinese students cheerleading in Boston.