The Great Brain Race

The topic of “globalization” has been discussed from many angles. Some praise the trend toward increasing international exchanges as a good thing; others wring their hands over the harm it allegedly does.

Ben Wildavsky’s new book The Great Brain Race is the first book that examines the globalization of higher education and to his credit, he takes a firm position in favor of it. There is no more reason to fear “free trade in minds” (his shorthand for the increasing mobility of professors and students around the globe) than there is to fear free trade in goods, he contends.

“In the worlds of business and culture,” Wildavsky writes, “the globalization trend is so well known as to be cliché. But a lesser-known phenomenon, the globalization of universities, is equally important and has perhaps even more far-reaching consequences.”

It was that idea, captured in the book’s subtitle (“How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World”) that made this book so intriguing to me. Is it true that increasing international competition to create universities, recruit professors, and entice students is so momentous that it is “reshaping the world”? Is it even more important than the rapidly increasing internationalization of commerce and culture? If so, Wow!

I don’t think Wildavsky quite makes that case, but his thoroughly researched book nevertheless provides a great deal of information about globalization in higher education and it raises some interesting questions.  Perhaps best of all, he takes issue with the “educational mercantilists” who fret over the alleged “decline” of the United States in higher education and call for government intervention.

One of the big globalization trends Wildavsky examines is American universities setting up shop in foreign lands. For example, New York University is partnering with Abu Dhabi (the wealthiest of the seven United Arab Emirates) in creating a new liberal arts research university. Relying on the prodigious wealth of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, which believes that a large chunk of its oil wealth should be invested in “world class” higher education, NYU aims to make Abu Dhabi a future “idea capital.”

From the glittering architectural plan for the campus to the no-expense-spared approach to recruiting students (chosen ones get to fly to Abu Dhabi and are feted almost like visiting dignitaries, as we read in this New York Times story), NYU’s venture is lavish. A big part of the cost will be recruiting a top-quality faculty. Getting professors to live in an Islamic country far removed from their familiar turf in the U.S. or Europe demands great inducements.

When it’s complete, this new university should be dazzling. But what’s in this for NYU? For Abu Dhabi? For the rest of the world?

These are the kinds of questions Wildavsky brushes up against, but doesn’t really dig into. NYU evidently regards this as a free means of enhancing its prestige. (It’s sinking none of its own funds into Abu Dhabi but evidently regards international expansion as a means of advancing into the top echelon of universities.) Prestige, however, is a zero-sum game; if NYU is perceived as gaining, some other school must be losing. Does anything really change, though?

Global outposts in places like Abu Dhabi give college presidents like NYU’s John Sexton the thrill of opening new buildings and jetting around like rock stars. But does that lead to educational advances–or is it just conspicuous consumption?

Wildavsky does cite a skeptical New York magazine article about Sexton and the Abu Dhabi campus entitled “The Emir of NYU.” Unfortunately, our author is so caught up in the stories about all these shiny, new higher ed investments (mostly in the Middle East and Asia) that he never pauses to ponder how much they really matter.

Does education improve by spending loads of money to move some star academics from the places where they were and instead locate them at new universities in the Middle East? Same for the recruiting of sharp students. Competition among profit-seeking businesses has well-known benefits (improving quality and efficiency), but is there any reason to believe that this kind of high-level university competition has similar effects?

I’m not arguing that the “brain race” is harmful.  My point is that there’s no evidence in the book (or anywhere else, to my knowledge) that globalization means improved teaching or research. It seems to be a big overstatement to say that it is “reshaping the world.”

Perhaps the reason why Wildavsky doesn’t follow a skeptical line is that he buys the idea that more education is presumptively good. That belief was the motive force behind his negative review in the Wall Street Journal last December of Professor Jackson Toby’s recent book The Lowering of Higher Education in America. (You can read my comment on that review in this post, which contains a link to Wildavsky’s review.) Even though he acknowledges there that many students are unprepared and unmotivated, he still thinks that America must encourage more of them to graduate from college. That notion surfaces from time to time n The Great Brain Race when he writes that “the road to economic success runs through college campuses.”

No, it doesn’t.  The Soviet Union had a great number of universities and the world’s highest percentage of college-educated people, but its economy was pathetic. Conversely, Hong Kong has never been big on higher education, but within a few decades after the end of World War II, it was an economic dynamo. Hong Kong had something the Soviets didn’t: economic freedom.

With economic freedom, people can and will make the most of their abilities and that brings us to another important topic Wildavsky addresses, the worldwide growth in for-profit education. He devotes a chapter to it and while acknowledging that many educational experts look down their noses at the for-profits, he gives them a fair shake.

Consider the story he tells about a venture by Whitney University in Colombia. Using satellite dishes in remote parts of the country, Whitney makes it possible for residents to learn things beyond the traditional village crafts, such as financial management.

If anything is “reshaping the world,” I’d say it is unglamorous, micro-level education like that, rather than prestigious universities that draw most of the attention.

The best contribution of the book is Wildavsky’s vigorous argument that the increasingly open educational world is nothing to fear. Nations should not try to protect “their” universities against possible “brain drain” because, he writes, “ideas can’t be contained within national boundaries.”

That truth is often forgotten. It doesn’t really matter where teaching and research are done so long as governments don’t interfere with the freedom of individuals to use knowledge. Think of South Korea and North Korea. The former undoubtedly produces somewhat more ideas than the latter, but the vast difference in living standards has to do with the fact that South Koreans are almost infinitely more free to use ideas from all parts of the world than North Koreans are.

Driving home his point about the folly of “educational mercantilism,” Wildavsky quotes George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen who says we should stop worrying about the number of scientists and engineers other countries are training: “These professionals are not fundamentally a threat. To the contrary, they are creators, whose ideas are likely to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, not just the business elite.”

Excellent point. International borders (with a few horrible exceptions) do not block the flow of ideas.  Just as we don’t worry that, oh, California has too many scientists compared with Oregon, we should not worry that India has too many compared with the United States.

Competition is good. Ben Wildavsky has documented well the upsurge of competition in education globally and even if some of it may be as ostentatious as the latest Las Vegas casinos, the trend is healthy.