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ON THE SHELFFree Trade in Minds

An author heralds a Renaissance-like intellectual transformation.

The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World
by Ben Wildavsky, Princeton University Press 2010, 240 pages

As the world goes global, or “flat,” in the parlance of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, so, too does higher education, with greater numbers of students and researchers seeking opportunities abroad and universities working to establish overseas campuses and partnerships. Worldwide, 3 million students pursue an education outside their home countries, a 57 percent increase from the past decade. The United States still draws the lion’s share of foreign students – 22 percent overall and a whopping 64 percent of all foreign engineering graduate students. But as other countries start to challenge this dominance, racing to develop their own world-class facilities, faculties, and recruitment campaigns, many Americans have reacted with concern. From the National Academies to the White House, any number of warnings have been issued about threats to U.S. competitiveness, particularly in the fields of science and engineering.

Ben Wildavsky, a former education editor for U.S. News & World Report, takes an opposing view, arguing instead that increased global connections benefit everyone. And as people worldwide gain greater access to knowledge, skills, and technology, he writes, “the far-reaching intellectual ferment . . . could have a transformational effect similar to that of the 12th-century Renaissance of learning.” In this book, which is largely devoted to mapping the territory of this emerging global arena, the author argues that the United States should embrace a “free trade in minds,” not protectionist policies. Global education, says Wildavsky, should be recognized as a challenge, not a threat.

The topics explored in The Great Brain Race will be familiar to Prism readers involved with international education and informative for those who want to learn more. Wildavsky details, for example, steps taken by universities such as Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and Australia’s New South Wales in establishing branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia. Several early collaborations have fallen apart, he admits, unable to move past disagreements about degree granting, academic freedom, and funding. Even before the 2008 financial crisis, promising new satellite campuses were forced to close when student demand proved insufficient. Yet Wildavsky believes that “the rise of the new global campus is likely to create a range of other permutations and combinations, some more radical than anything being contemplated today.”

One area of growth may be found through for-profit schools. These institutions suffered a recent drubbing in the United States for alleged questionable practices and standards. But Wildavsky identifies the important contributions made by a number of them – including Laureate Education, Apollo Global, and Kaplan Inc. – to higher education overseas. Many countries struggle to sustain a handful of national public universities, he writes. That means that only a few privileged students are able to attend, often members of the elite classes. In Indonesia, 344,000 applicants vied for 80,000 slots at state universities in 2004. Those who can afford to do so go abroad to study; but for many others, for-profit schools fill a pressing need. Thus, for-profits, which typically offer career- and skills-oriented curricula, have come to represent a huge proportion of student enrollment – 80 percent in South Korea, 77 percent in Japan, and 75 percent in India and Brazil.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, given his U.S. News background, Wildavsky factors in new global rankings of universities – another indication, he says, of the growing interest in the comparative effectiveness of postsecondary institutions across the globe. A full chapter is devoted to the origins of the original U.S. News college ranking system and the several international ranking systems it has spawned, notably that of Shanghai’s Institute of Higher Education at the Jiao Tong University.

Some readers may be disappointed that the discussions contained within The Great Brain Race are not pursued in greater depth. Yet what this slim volume does provide is a highly readable introduction to and advocacy for global education. “By continuing to recruit and welcome the best students in the world, by sending more students overseas, by fostering cross-national research collaboration, and by cooperating in an effort to better measure the effectiveness of universities,” Wildavsky declares, “the United States not only will sustain its own academic excellence but also will continue to expand the sum total of global knowledge.”

Robin Tatu is senior editor of Prism.




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