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

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.

Even at universities where there may be neither significant mobility of students and faculty nor a satellite campus, the influence of globalization is unmistakable, first and foremost through the movement of ideas. On the massive suburban campus of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, for instance, the many volumes on the bookshelf of the director of the university's higher education department include A University for the 21st Century, by former University of Michigan president James Duderstadt, and, of course, Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat. In other ways, too, students and faculty at research institutions everywhere are conscious that they are in an academic competition that extends well beyond the campus gates. At Shanghai Jiao Tong, which has expanded rapidly from its original western Shanghai campus as part of a government-funded effort to reach international prominence, a banner near the dormitory buildings gives students their marching orders: "Work hard. Don't waste time. Don't waste money. For the nation and for yourself."

What does all this mean? Simply put, the global academic order is transforming in far-reaching ways-and not for the first time. Scholarly mobility has a long-standing tradition, dating back some nine hundred years to a time when students from around Europe flocked to the first universities in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. The twentieth-century version of this phenomenon emerged in the United States, which, after World War II, became an unsurpassed magnet for students and professors from around the world. U.S. research universities are lavishly funded and house a vastly disproportionate share of top-ranked departments, elite students, Nobel Prize-winning professors, and cutting-edge laboratories. Borrowing from the groundbreaking model pioneered in nineteenth-century Germany, American institutions adapted and perfected the combination of teaching and scholarship under one roof, becoming the universally acknowledged masters of the modern research university. For the past half century, American universities have been the envy of the world-and may well remain so for decades to come.

But the same forces of globalization that have shaken up almost every sector of the economy have greatly intensified competition and mobility in higher education. In the new educational marketplace, more truly worldwide than ever before, an unprecedented number of students are traveling to universities outside their home countries. The United States market share, while likely to remain formidable for years, is slowly but surely being eroded by stepped-up competition from overseas universities, not only in the West, notably Australia and Great Britain, but also in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Japan, and China. At the same time, popular Western universities are acting more like businesses-moving closer to their customers by establishing satellite campuses in Asia and the Middle East, and teaming up with overseas universities to forge strategic alliances that offer scholarly and marketing advantages to both sides.

Amid this rush of academic activity around the world, an even more consequential shift is taking place: increasing numbers of countries have an urgent wish not simply to send students to the United States, or to host "branch campuses" on their own soil, but to build world-class universities of their own. That desire explains why nations from China, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia to Germany and France are engaged in expensive and ambitious projects to create U.S.-style research institutions designed to be competitive at the highest levels. The progress of these new and improved universities is being measured, inevitably, by a burgeoning set of national and global college scorecards modeled in whole or part on the success of the controversial U.S. News & World Report rankings.

My goal in these pages is to chronicle and analyze the growing globalization of higher education in all its dimensions: the ever-more-intense recruitment of students and faculty; the swift spread of branch campuses; the well-financed efforts to create world-class universities, whether by upgrading existing institutions or by building brand-new ones; the innovative efforts by online universities and other for-profit players to fill unmet needs in higher education markets around the globe; and the closely watched rankings by which everyone keeps score. These rankings are increasingly taking new forms as they are refined to capture vital elements of the university experience, notably how much students actually learn while on campus.

Along the way, I will discuss the "why" behind this far-reaching phenomenon. There is no single why, of course, but rather a constellation of reasons: the quest to build knowledge-based economies that has led so many governments to scramble to improve their higher education systems; the notion that a well-educated person today must be exposed to ideas and people without regard to national boundaries; the enormous student demand for foreign degrees; the financial attraction for many Western universities of overseas students who pay full freight; the prestige that many colleges seek in international initiatives as they begin seeing themselves as global rather than purely local players; and the practical fact that better communication and faster, cheaper transportation allow people to teach, study, collaborate, and compete across national borders as never before.

But why does any of this matter? Because, taken together, these developments reflect the rise of a new kind of free trade: free trade in minds. As students and academics become citizens of the world more than ever before, the same kind of meritocracy that emerged in the United States when elite universities began talent-based admissions, drawing students from around the nation, is now beginning to take hold on a global scale. In this worldwide marketplace, more and more people will have the chance, slowly but surely, to advance based on what they know rather than who they are. When students and researchers traverse the globe with increasing ease and in significant numbers, and when universities compete ever more fiercely for the best minds, the trend toward a world in which talent can rise and reach its greatest potential seems unmistakable. Press accounts and academic articles have described individual aspects of this phenomenon before, but too little attention has been paid to the transformative nature of campus globalization as a whole. The academic mobility made possible by our increasingly borderless academic world will, like other kinds of free trade, bring widespread economic benefits, along with valuable intellectual ferment and tremendous opportunities for individuals.

For all its potential, the worldwide expansion of higher education has been accompanied by myriad missteps and problems, which any honest account must address. To name just a few, there are the numerous examples of satellite campuses that have fallen short of expectations or been closed; quality problems rooted in the difficulty of persuading home-campus faculty to venture overseas and the related reluctance of some elite schools to dilute their valuable brands by entering into international partnerships; the threat that substandard institutions will capitalize on the thirst for foreign degrees; the financial conflicts that can occur when recruiters are paid twice-once by the overseas students that seek university places and again by the universities that seek to enroll those students; and the controversies over free speech, women's rights, gay rights, and recognition of Israel that have erupted when institutions such as Berkeley, Stanford, and New York University have created new campuses or forged academic partnerships in the Persian Gulf.

But these difficulties should be viewed as the inevitable growing pains of a movement that is sure to gain ground, with huge social consequences. A bigger obstacle is the considerable alarm and hand-wringing sometimes brought on by the increased educational competition now facing individuals, universities, and entire nations. Some governments and universities around the world have responded to the growth of cross-border higher education with outright academic protectionism. Perhaps the two biggest culprits are China and India, which are notorious for the bureaucratic barriers they erect to foreign universities wishing to open new campuses or create new partnerships. Other nations focus not on keeping foreign institutions out but on excluding foreign students, and trying to keep domestic students at home. In Malaysia, the Ministry of Higher Education has gone so far as to place a 5 per cent cap on the number of foreign undergraduates who can attend the country's public universities. In a contrasting twist on impeding student mobility, the president of one IIT responded to the huge overseas demand for his high-flying students by grounding them- he banned undergraduates from taking foreign internships.

Elsewhere, notably in the United States, scholarly mobility has been slowed or halted by visa policies that are typically not protectionist in any explicit sense but nonetheless have unfortunate effects. Stepped-up security reviews in the years since the September 11 terrorist attacks, while justifiable in some cases, have had the de facto effect of keeping out students and professors who would be an asset to U.S. universities and to the nation. At the same time, the stringent limits that have been placed on visas for highly skilled workers-in the name of protecting American jobs-have created an obstacle to attracting some talented international scholars, who often attend U.S. universities in the hope of staying on to work and in some cases to become permanent residents or citizens.

More broadly, an even larger barrier to the flourishing of global higher education is psychological: it can be seen in the widespread notion that a nation whose education system is on the rise poses a threat to its economic competitors. This phenomenon is, of course, particularly noticeable in the case of the West's fear about the rise of China and other Asian nations. It has become commonplace to fret, or even panic, about the alleged threat, both educational and economic, posed by the enormous number of science and engineering PhDs produced by those nations. This mind-set isn't necessarily linked to any explicit attempts to restrict academic mobility or, for that matter, to inhibit the creation of world-class universities around the globe. It might be considered simply a spur to greater efforts in the West on the grounds that developing countries are catching up in the global brain race. Its net effect, however, is to suggest that there is something worrisome about other nations' efforts to upgrade their teaching and research capacities, that the West may lose out when others move ahead.

But the globalization of higher education should be embraced, not feared. The worldwide competition for human talent, the race to produce innovative research, the push to extend university campuses to multiple countries, and the rush to produce knowledgeable and creative graduates who can strengthen increasingly knowledge-based economies-all of these trends are hugely beneficial to the entire world. Increasing knowledge is not a zero-sum game. Intellectual gains by one country often benefit others. More PhD production in China, for instance, doesn't take away from America's store of learning. In fact, Chinese research may well provide the building blocks for innovation by U.S. entrepreneurs-or those from other nations. "When new knowledge is created, it's a public good and can be used by many," says RAND economist James Hosek. Just as free trade in manufacturing or call centre support provides the lowest-cost goods and services, benefiting both consumers and the most efficient producers, global academic competition is making free movement of people and ideas, on the basis of merit, more and more the norm, with enormously positive consequences for individuals, for universities, and for nations.

As the world's academic landscape is reshaped, traditional patterns of mobility, knowledge transmission, and economic growth are already being upended. A case in point: Several decades ago, some observers expressed much concern about the brain drain experienced by developing countries whose most promising citizens often departed to seek better educational opportunities and better lives in the West. More recently, however, this term has been replaced by "brain circulation" or "brain gain," as many of those who had left nations such as India or China begin to return home to seize opportunities in these countries' newly booming economies (including, especially in China, their revitalized universities). What the global university movement promises to do, as nations make sizable investments in education, compete to nurture human capital, and send students and researchers back and forth to universities around the world, is to go one step further: from brain drain to brain circulation to what might be called brain growth.

This isn't to say that global competition in university education won't create some winners and losers. No doubt it will. But again, as with other kinds of free trade, the net benefits will be significant. Three of the most important higher education trends of the last half century-mass access, growing reliance on the merit principle, and significantly greater use of technology-will all be accelerated by globalization. And there is no reason to believe that gains for one academic player will inevitably mean losses for all the others. Indeed, academic free trade may be more important than any other kind. All this has one clear policy consequence: nations around the world should move quickly to lower barriers, both practical and psychological, to truly global higher education. The trend will no doubt proceed in fits and starts, and it would be a mistake to be Panglossian about its positive effects. Nevertheless, while it is easy to become inured to the rhetoric of globalization, which seems to be on the lips of every ambitious college president, the trend is real and important. Ultimately, it holds the keys to sustaining the knowledge economy and advancing global prosperity.

Drawing on extensive research, including more than one hundred interviews conducted in India, the Middle East, Western Europe, the United States, and China, the chapters that follow detail the new universe of global higher education, argue for its crucial importance, and offer informed speculation about what the future holds for the worldwide marketplace of scholars and ideas.

The following text is excerpted from Ben Wildavsky's The Great Brain Race. Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.