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'The Great Brain Race' by Ben Wildavsky. (Princeton University Press/Princeton University Press)
'The Great Brain Race' by Ben Wildavsky. (Princeton University Press/Princeton University Press)


Excerpt: What is global higher education - and why does it matter? Add to ...

At first glance, the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras seems to be an incongruous place to witness the increasingly international reach of academic life. Nestled in a national park filled with deer and magnificent banyan trees, IIT-Madras's lush campus in southeast India looks somewhat remote and sleepy. But appearances can be deceiving. The institute's director, M. S. Ananth, has just returned from Davos, where he took part in an international higher education working group headed by Yale University president Richard Levin. The university guesthouse, where monkeys sometimes invade visitors' rooms if windows are left open, is hosting a range of foreign academics, including David Mumford, a prominent Brown University mathematician. Outside the campus recruiting office are sign-up sheets for students to schedule interviews with Google, McKinsey, and the like. And along the same hallways is a poster advertising scholarships to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, a brand-new graduate school in Saudi Arabia that is hurrying to become a world-class centre of learning.

That KAUST seeks to recruit IIT graduates is no surprise-these students have become a prized commodity in the new global talent market. The IITs, a network of elite engineering schools that date back to India's postcolonial days, are celebrated for educating the nation's top students, including the cofounders of such pioneering high-tech firms as Infosys and Sun Microsystems. These prestigious schools admit less than 3 per cent of all applicants. Indeed, the frenzy to gain acceptance is such that some students even leave home for one or two years at the end of high school, living in hostels while they attend coaching centres to cram full-time for the insanely competitive IIT entrance exam. The quest for victory takes on all kinds of unexpected forms. At one of the cram schools that dot a street near IIT-Delhi, a pie chart in the director's office spells out the secrets of success on the admissions test. It lists such conventional striver attributes as hard work, mathematical aptitude, and analytical skills. Then, without apparent irony, it throws in this crucial quality: "killer instinct." Still, rhetorical excess notwithstanding, the demanding selection and training of IITians, as they are called, has created an elite class both in India and beyond its borders.

What's more, the porous boundaries between the IITs and their academic counterparts around the world, along with the routine recruiting of their students by universities and employers from Hong Kong to Oxford, are by no means unique. In the worlds of business and culture, 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. For a burgeoning number of universities, national boundaries have become largely irrelevant. The same Saudi university trawling for top Indian students, for example, has also sought to catapult itself into the top ranks of world scholarship by forging alliances, backed by lavish funding, with the likes of Imperial College, London, and the University of California, Berkeley. And in another demonstration of international scholarly recruiting, KAUST's first president was poached from the National University of Singapore. For the new president, this move capped a globe-trotting career that has taken him from Asia to Canada to the United States and then back to Singapore before his new Middle East posting.

Few parts of the world have been untouched by the new university globalization. Singapore, for instance, has forged a role as a regional and even global hub for higher education, attracting institutions from around the world with considerable success. By way of illustration, a visitor to the renowned global business school INSEAD arrives at the well-groomed corporate-style campus an hour outside Paris to find that a scheduled interview with the head of the MBA program will take place by video conference. The dean, Jake Cohen, is in a conference room at INSEAD's Singapore campus, where he spends a significant portion of his time. Students can begin their studies at either site-"we don't make distinctions between the two," Cohen says-and demand for the chance to earn a degree by spending time on both campuses is high.

INSEAD's students are clearly prepared to embrace a life of transcontinental travel, as are the millions of others who move from nation to nation in search of educational opportunities. However, some students in the new borderless world of higher education can find the international educations they seek much closer to home. In Abu Dhabi, the Brooklyn-born president of New York University instructs a group of young students from the United Arab Emirates in the niceties of the First Amendment. And in Doha, Qatar, female engineering students in black abayas emerge from a colossal campus building next to banners reading "Welcome to Aggieland" because they are earning their degrees at a branch campus run by Texas A&M University.

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