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The Global University and the Future of Human Capital

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The world is a far better place when we embrace the transnational flow of people and ideas, limit the urge to engage in academic protectionism, and expand the reach of the global meritocracy.

For some Americans, references to the “global higher education market” call to mind hazy semesters spent guzzling beer in some European capital, the exceptionally intelligent Asian or South Asian classmates in a computer science course, or that sophisticated friend who went abroad to get a master’s in “Catalan Identity” (apologies to Woody Allen). Through this lens, the globalization of higher education is the process by which the world’s elite jet around the globe to earn degrees at the finest universities, becoming cosmopolitan “global citizens” as they go.

For others, including many of our elected representatives, the global academic market dredges up more foreboding visions of a world in which America’s postwar preeminence in scientific research and innovation is quickly being superseded by the enterprising Chinese and Indian systems of higher education. These upstarts are churning out far more (and far smarter) science, engineering, and math PhDs, and their research may help to slowly erode America’s privileged economic position. As President Obama warned in 2009, “the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

Wildavsky shows that the extent to which students and faculty cross borders, set up transnational academic partnerships, and diffuse Western university models to other countries in the modern era is unprecedented and continually increasing.

In his new book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World (Princeton University Press), Ben Wildavsky, a senior fellow at the Kauffman Foundation, illustrates just how parochial, short-sighted, and incomplete these perspectives are. First off, Wildavsky shows that the extent to which students and faculty cross borders, set up transnational academic partnerships, and diffuse Western university models to other countries in the modern era is unprecedented and continually expanding. In addition, he argues that as countries have sought to improve their position in the global higher education market, they have increasingly adopted meritocratic admissions systems, much as the United States did in the postwar era. As a result, whether and where you go to college is becoming less a function of who you know and more a function of what you know. The globalization of higher education that Wildavsky describes is much more than your daddy’s study abroad program.

More importantly, the book argues that nations should embrace the emergence of a global higher education market, not fear it. Wildavsky links academic competition and the free flow of ideas to age-old arguments in favor of free trade: increasing knowledge via university research is not a zero-sum game, and competition among the best institutions in the world will promote excellence. The existence of an academic “free market” promises to pay dividends that are not nation-specific. World leaders should therefore endeavor to remove barriers to the free movement of people and ideas to and from the world’s colleges and universities. As long as the urge to engage in “academic protectionism” is kept at bay, the United States should welcome the push by China, India, France, Germany, and many others to catapult their institutions of higher education to the top of the international heap.

As Wildavsky weaves his well-researched argument, The Great Brain Race takes readers on an engaging journey to postsecondary institutions around the world. Readers travel from “Education City” in the deserts of Qatar, where young Arab women have bucked their traditional place in society to become Texas A&M “Aggies” at the university’s branch campus, to a corrugated tin shack in Colombia, where working adults take business administration classes beamed in from Bogota by Whitney University, a multinational for-profit provider of higher education. The gist is that people of all backgrounds, ages, and abilities are in search of postsecondary degrees, countries are in search of a highly skilled workforce, and millions of scholars are in search of research money and state-of-the-art research facilities. And they are increasingly doing so without respect to national borders. Institutions of all types, from America’s top research universities to new for-profits like Laureate and Kaplan, are more than happy to serve them. In the process, these institutions have the potential to transform the societies and cultures where they set up shop.

The book argues that nations should embrace the emergence of a global higher education market, not fear it.

The book is an excellent and thought-provoking work, one that raises many important questions about where globalized higher education will take us. First, in his chapter on “branch campuses,” Wildavsky outlines the extent to which these international outposts of prestigious research universities have the potential to shape the politics of the countries in which they operate. In a later chapter on the international expansion of for-profit institutions, however, he seems to underestimate the social and political implications of the for-profits’ strategy of creating opportunities for traditionally underrepresented students. Is it possible that these for-profits have more potential to transform the politics of their foreign partners than their prestigious, nonprofit counterparts? Second, the book promotes the idea that global “academic competition” will necessarily improve the postsecondary system. Though I believe the overarching theme, there is often a tension between world-class research and world-class undergraduate education. Can we expect the competition outlined in the book to pay dividends for both sides of this equation, or will one side trump the other?

In one chapter, Wildavsky profiles a set of efforts to extend the reach of the best American and European universities, many of which are taking place in the Middle East. New York University has set up NYU Abu Dhabi, while Georgetown, Texas A&M, Cornell, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, and Virginia Commonwealth have all created satellite campuses in Qatar’s “Education City.” In both cases, the goal was to provide high-quality postsecondary opportunities for native students, so that they would not need to go abroad to obtain a college education.

In addition to generating revenue for the main campus back home, university leaders see part of their mission in overtly political terms: the officials interviewed in the book linked NYU Abu Dhabi and Education City in no uncertain terms to the “liberalization” of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. But producing such political effects depends, at least in part, on the kinds of students that these branch campuses serve. If the Qataris and Emiratis who are taking classes at these institutions are the same ones that would have attended a prestigious American or European university anyway (many elite Arab students go abroad to college), how will changing the venue lead to “iterative liberalization?” Increased opportunity for women is one potential avenue, and the book rightly points out that most unmarried Arab women would be prohibited from studying abroad at a world-class university without a male escort. It is less clear how these restricted opportunities (A&M’s campus enrolls only 300 students; Carnegie Mellon has 200) will change the status quo. Research by the RAND Corporation has documented how the educational attainment of Qatari women had overtaken that of men before the branch campuses had arrived; among a sample of Qataris that had left secondary school by 1998, 71 percent of Qatari women had a postsecondary degree compared to just 30 percent of men.

Whether and where you go to college is becoming less a function of who you know and more a function of what you know.

Rather than liberalizing agents, these branch campuses seem more like a modified incarnation of the elite study-abroad tradition, one that has been common in the Middle East for years and has done little to make these countries more progressive on human rights and private property. Moreover, though Wildavsky provides some early evidence that the campuses are having a liberalizing impact, at least within their gates, it is unlikely that these universities have incentive to evoke the ire of their affluent sponsors by pushing the political envelope or riling the disenfranchised. Instead, they can make good money and burnish their international bona fides by educating the countries’ elite.

In the chapter on for-profit institutions, Wildavsky details how these institutions serve middle- and lower-class adults who have traditionally been unable to find postsecondary opportunities in their country. In contrast to the discussion of branch campus politics, however, Wildavsky seems to downplay the possibility that these for-profits could foment more fundamental changes to entrenched social and political orders. As underrepresented groups are given greater opportunities to build human capital and become socially mobile, equality of opportunity becomes more common in countries where it was not present before. The students in that corrugated shack in Colombia would not be studying at the London School of Economics without Whitney’s online courses. But, thanks to those courses, their children may do so someday. In the same way that the expansion of less-selective universities in the United States helped to promote social mobility for highly qualified middle- and lower-class students, these for-profits might do so in countries where public systems of higher education operate under severe size constraints. This is not to say that for-profit institutions are the solution to worldwide inequality and political disenfranchisement, or that these firms aspire to do any such thing. But as they capitalize on emerging student markets in decidedly unequal countries, these institutions may also help to open up opportunities and cultivate the ranks of the middle classes in some of these locales.

Lastly, while it is tempting to assume that academic competition will drive systemic improvement in the quality of postsecondary education, it may well depend on what level of the system you’re referring to. The growing international obsession with rankings (Wildavsky has a superb chapter on the subject), which are largely predicated on faculty research productivity and prestige, may pay definite dividends for the quality of graduate education. But there is no guarantee that such competition will do so at the undergraduate level. When research productivity is of primary importance, undergraduate teaching may get short shrift. Wildavsky correctly points out that not all quality measures are focused on research output; the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s effort to honestly assess the “value added” by universities to their undergraduate students may serve as an especially important corrective to the research-rankings competition. In the global race to attract the most talented researchers and produce the next big innovation, countries and universities must not lose sight of the need to transmit that human capital to undergraduates through high-quality teaching and learning.

These are just a few of the important questions that come to mind while you read Wildavsky’s engrossing book. In the end, The Great Brain Race is very convincing: the world is a far better place when we embrace the transnational flow of people and ideas, limit the urge to engage in academic protectionism, and expand the reach of the global meritocracy.

Andrew Kelly is a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Kelly recently wrote “Hispanic Graduation Madness”; he and Chad Aldeman also described the “False Fronts” behind higher-education accountability systems. Mark Schneider explains how “Obama’s Education Hopes Face Achievement Realities,” while Christina Hoff Sommers outlines “Baseless Bias and the Second Sex” in higher education.

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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