The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World

April 5, 2010

In an interview with Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Education, Ben Wildavsky answers questions about the themes of his new book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World

Q: For many years, great students from much of the world have traveled to other countries for a higher education, whether to the great European universities or to universities in the United States. Beyond the fact that other nations are investing in building great universities, how is the global market for higher education changing? Is it just about more players, or is it more than that?

A: What’s happening is that a number of different factors have come together to create a truly global academic marketplace on a scale that’s never been seen before. Yes, there have been mobile students at least since the first Western universities emerged in the 12th century. But mobility today is unprecedented: There are about three million students studying outside their home countries, which represents a 57 percent increase in just the past decade, and the numbers are expected to continue growing even faster. We also know that faculty are increasingly mobile. So are universities themselves, as more and more colleges experiment with setting up outposts in other countries. And the fact that everybody from South Korea to Saudi Arabia is trying to build great universities is crucial to the globalization of higher education. We’re in an intensely competitive environment, with a huge race for academic talent taking place as everybody tries to build knowledge-based economies. Inevitably, global university rankings have emerged to keep score because global education markets, like other markets, need information to function effectively. Over all, we’re seeing the gradual creation of a global academic meritocracy, which I believe will have far-reaching and positive consequences.

Q: Your book is generally positive and optimistic about the new global higher education, yet much of the discussion of international education in the United State is competitive (fears that some nations’ universities might compete with American institutions, or that other countries are becoming more competitive at attracting graduate students). Is the competitive nature of these discussions helpful or missing the point?

A: It’s perhaps understandable that we worry about foreign competition. I guess you could argue that warnings about being surpassed by universities in other nations are just an effort to inspire greater efforts at U.S. universities (and to get more funding). But to frame what’s happening in global higher ed purely in terms of a competitive threat is to miss the huge opportunities that exist in a world in which people and ideas are circulating more freely than ever before, a trend that I call “free trade in minds.” I think joining the competitive fray is great.

But the alarmist rhetoric we often hear has a destructive effect, because it suggests that we are going to lose out as other countries gain ground. It fosters what I call “academic protectionism,” which creates a climate of anxiety about what’s happening in other higher education systems. I’m not Panglossian about every aspect of global higher education — there will undoubtedly be lots of missteps along the way, which is inevitable when the landscape changes so quickly. We’re in a period of experimentation. But it’s true that I’m optimistic, because I think we’re at an exciting time in the development of universities. In the United States, we should be looking at the growing academic prowess of other nations as a chance for greater intellectual exchange, collaboration, and innovation.

Q: How does the United States gain from other countries building better universities?

A: In the same way that we benefit when other countries become more prosperous. If China’s GDP and standard of living rise, this isn’t something we should wring our hands over — we should welcome it, because we’re better off in a world with higher economic growth and greater trading opportunities. The same is true for universities. When China supersizes its university system and produces many more Ph.D.s, that’s good for us, not bad for us. The key insight here is that increasing knowledge is not a zero-sum game: there isn’t a finite sum of learning out there in the world that we all have to fight over. Improving education and economic growth in one country doesn’t make other countries dumber and poorer. In a similar vein, many scholars note that knowledge is a public good, which means that discoveries in one nation can be taken advantage of in others. As Amar Bhidé observes, ideas can’t be contained within national boundaries, which means that the U.S. share of the world’s research production matters far less than the proven ability of U.S. entrepreneurs, financiers, and consumers to take advantage of cutting-edge research, wherever it comes from.

Within the academic world, there are lots of other ways in which advances in other countries help the United States. For one thing there’s been an enormous increase in international scholarly collaboration — joint research projects, coauthored papers, and so forth. In addition, the new global university marketplace is producing some entirely new arrangements. Yale has some collaborations in China, for instance, in which it takes advantage of cheap lab space and well-trained technicians — China’s comparative advantage, for now — and supplies senior faculty to lead research projects — what Yale president Richard Levin, an economist, calls “the scarce factor of production … the sophisticated knowledge worker who is the leader of the enterprise, whose research design is driving the system.” Such partnerships have advantages for both sides, and the current dynamic will no doubt change over time as China’s high-end knowledge workers become more numerous.

Q: Your book notes the growth of branch campuses around the world — and there is now movement from India to allow foreign campuses to set up there. Assuming this legislation receives final approval, do you think India will be the next big market for branch campuses?

A: I think that’s likely, but a lot will depend on the details of the bill that goes to India’s parliament. There are big questions about the regulatory regime that will govern foreign institutions, including whether they will have to abide by India’s strict admissions and hiring quotas for members of so-called backward castes. So far, the legislation says foreign universities can’t take profits out of the country, which has many foreign universities, especially the for-profits, pretty concerned. But overall I think this is a really promising development. India has a huge population that is hungry for educational opportunities and that has been badly served by a university system that’s terribly inadequate, both in quality and quantity. So it seems like a market ripe for new providers. Until now, India has been one of the worst offenders when it comes to academic protectionism, largely because of domestic politics. If its higher education market follows the rest of the economy, which has boomed since India abandoned large parts of its central planning apparatus, a lot of branch campuses will come in and I suspect the overall effect will be positive.

That doesn’t mean the process will always go smoothly. We know that foreign providers come in for a variety of reasons and that not every branch campus will be a model of quality. There’s lots of evidence from Japan, Singapore, and, more recently, the Middle East, that branch campuses can fall apart. But there are also some very good satellite campuses. As long as reasonable regulation is in place, I think its important to allow students to get the kind of education they want, where they want it, and when they want it. As restrictions are lifted, I think we’ll be seeing more cross-border campuses where the economics permit. Giving Indians who want and need more education a bigger range of options to fill their unmet needs seems to me a no-brainer.

Q: As the global higher education market grows, what do you see as areas of enduring strength for the United States and areas in which the U.S. will lose its position?

A: Market are unpredictable – and I think that’s true of the global academic marketplace as much as any other kind of market. So I’m hesitant to make any grand pronouncements. Here’s a cautionary tale: In the late 19th century Americans flocked to the first modern research universities in Germany and brought the model back to the United States, where it was perfected to the point that we became the world’s research powerhouse. A little more than 100 years later, the quality of Germany’s universities had plummeted – and it is now copying the U.S. model as it attempts to create a group of world-class institutions. So things can change quite a bit over a century. One possibility worth considering is that universities may take entirely new forms. We’re already seeing a large number of cross-national partnerships between universities, including many U.S. institutions. As travel and communication gets even easier and cheaper, one could imagine wholesale mergers to create global institutions – the university equivalent of multinational corporations. Nigel Thrift, vice chancellor of the University of Warwick, talks about universities following the model of “firm theory,” in which business begin in one country, trade with others, establish international branches and alliances, and eventually merge with competitors and become multinationals. I have no idea whether this will really happen – there’s also a good argument that the best universities are strongly rooted in place. But I think this thought experiment illustrates how conventional notions of competition between the United States and other nations may fade.

In the near term, we shouldn’t lose site of the fact that we remain hugely dominant – we have a disproportionate share of top researchers, 70 percent of the world’s Nobel winners, hold most of the top slots in global college rankings, and so on. We also pass an important market test, continuing to attract the lion’s share of top international students. That said, patterns of mobility could well change, and with so many new and improved universities in other nations focusing on science and engineering, that seems likely to be an area where we might lose ground. But as I indicated before, this isn’t necessarily worrisome if we look at the sum total of knowledge production around the world. From a U.S. point of view, where we are likely to remain very strong is in our creative spark, in academia and beyond. This is something other nations urgently wish to emulate – our ability to innovate, and to use research discoveries in entrepreneurial ways. For undergraduates, we also have a tradition of liberal arts. It isn’t as widespread here as I would like, but I think it’s been a crucial element of our ability to graduate creative thinkers. Universities in many other nations don’t have a liberal arts tradition at all. A few are trying to change that, but for now our ability to ask questions, to challenge the conventional wisdom, to be nonconformist at times, is likely to continue to be an area where we stand out.

Q: A recent immigration reform proposal urges the U.S. to grant green cards to those who finish master’s and doctoral degrees in science and technology fields in the United States. To realize the benefits of global higher education, are changes needed in immigration law?

A: Absolutely. As people like Vivek Wadhwa have pointed out, we have a big problem keeping talented graduates in the country when they finish their degrees because of the shortage of H-1B visas (which allow some highly skilled graduates to work in the United States for a limited period of time). What’s worse is that some globally mobile students don’t come here in the first place, because they want to work in the West when they finish their degrees and they know it will be hard to do so in the United States. So we’re losing the best and brightest in several ways. Expanding H-1B visas is a great idea, but because they’re temporary it would only be a short-term fix. The proposal to provide green cards along with diplomas, which has been advocated by a number of reformers, including my Kauffman Foundation colleagues Carl Schramm and Bob Litan, is an even better solution. In a global market for talent, it seems to me that everybody benefits from having the most open borders possible for study and for work.