European Affairs


The “grading system” in this competition is partly based on the International Student Assessment (PISA), a recurrent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to compare the skills and knowledge of fifteen-year-olds in sixty-five industrialized countries of the world.

When it released its 2009 study in December 2010, the soul-searching started immediately for countries that did not perform as well as expected. American high-school students ranked 31st out of 65 in mathematics, 23rd in science, and 14th in reading. For the U.S., it was a shockingly poor outcome, described by the Obama administration’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan as "a massive wake-up call." His French counterpart, Luc Chatel, seemed equally disappointed: French high-school students fared only slightly better, ranking 22nd in mathematics, 27th in science and 21st in reading.

Both countries lagged far behind the students of Shanghai, raising the usual fears of Western decline, the rise of Asian nations, and the high number of scientists and engineers they produce every year. It is that same anxiety that led Mr. Obama to speak about “our generation’s sputnik moment” in this year’s State of the Union address – meaning that a “wake-up call” has come for the U.S. (and the West) to work harder on their investment in education if these countries want to remain innovative (and job-creating) in a changing economy and amid increased global competition.

Not all experts are convinced by this latest wave of alarmism. Ben Wildavsky -- the former education editor of U.S. News & World Report and currently a senior scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation -- forcefully argues that while the globalization of higher education certainly translates into growing competition, this trend “should be embraced, not feared” because it will benefit all and is not a zero-sum game. Despite the rise of China and other Asian nations, the rest of the world is not likely to catch up any time soon when it comes to the West’s, and especially America’s, depth of world-class academic institutions.

Across Europe, there has been growing alarm in recent years over the failure of venerable institutions of higher learning to turn out graduates with the right skills to get jobs, to function in tandem with business to foster innovation and attract foreign students from Asia and the Arab world to bring income in the form of tuition and add diversity to the student body – and perhaps remain as valuable foreign additions to the national work force.

But the situation is different in the U.S., whose recent history includes a decade-long influx of Asian students. The Americans’ problem seems to be keeping good Asian graduates, not getting them – a difficulty that is connected with immigration and visa issues.

Of course, another dimension of the education debate – one largely ignored in Wildavsky’s study that concentrates on the educational elite – is the question of finding better ways to connect many high school graduates to educational alternatives that equip for jobs in Western economies that are stressing innovation -- often in technology sectors that require skilled employees but not necessarily college graduates. For example, a major recent study by consultants McKinsey & Company found that even in the current recession, up to 800,000 well-paid jobs remain unfilled (notably in health care and business services) because of a lack of qualified applicants. This mismatch between the skills of graduating students and employers’ requirement is even more striking in advanced manufacturing, the study concludes. This is also a neglected issue, they said, in trying to formulate effective “lifelong learning” systems, which are gaining importance in most Western countries as a disguised form of job retraining for people who get laid off. (Success with an enlightened version of this approach has been achieved by Finland.).

The special value of Wildavsky’s book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010) – is his effort at providing some much-needed perspective into the debates about what might be called “the high end” of higher education.

Engaging and based on extensive research and interviews, The Great Brain Race offers a thorough and concise overview of the many dimensions of the globalization of secondary education, starting with the attempts of many countries to develop elite academic institutions that can compete globally. Wildavsky explains these efforts by the “general recognition that economic growth and global competitiveness are increasingly driven by knowledge, and that universities can play a role in that knowledge.”

But he also highlights the powerful influence played by university rankings. First started in 1983 by U.S. News & World Report as a consumer guide for the U.S. market, these same rankings are now ubiquitous and global, with those conducted by Shanghai Jiaotong University and the Times Higher Education Supplement considered the most influential.

Countries understand that their universities are competing with elite institutions across the world. That realization, of course, is strong among countries wanting to catch up with the West. Since 2008, China has largely increased its investments in education to accelerate the move toward rapid wage growth and higher levels of consumer demand. Similarly, in 2009, Saudi Arabia built from scratch the prestigious King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Riyadh. But the general image of these developing countries and emerging economies – summed up as the “rise of the rest” – sometimes hides big discrepancies in education among the populations in these countries. In India, for example, the liberalization of the economy starting in 1991, after decades of socialism, led to a corporate boom that today cannot find enough trained college graduates who are actually fluent in English and can handle international businesses such as calling centers.

The sense of urgency about change is also very strong in Western Europe, France and Germany (where almost all the universities are state-owned and state-run) are in the midst of serious reforms to restore lost luster to their universities. The Excellence Initiative, launched in 2005 by the German Federal Ministry of Education and the German Research Foundation, marked a break with the long-held belief that all universities in the country are equal and should be treated as such. Instead, the Initiative purposefully chose to generously fund a number of select institutions that it believes have the potential to become world-class.

In France, programs for change and reform now center on autonomy and greater control over their resources. The 2007 Law on the Responsibilities and Freedom of Universities for the first time “gave the nation’s eighty-five universities significantly greater autonomy, including control over their finances and more leeway in staffing decisions.” Valérie Pécresse, the minister for higher education and research of France, who introduced the law, said its main objective was to “attract the best students from all over the world,” giving back France its reputation as “a big country for innovation.” In December 2009, French President Nicolas Sarkozy then outlined his plan to raise a 35 billion euros “grand loan,” with 11 billion ear-marked for funding a half-dozen new world-class campuses. The program is in effect, but so far the results have been judged disappointing by critics.

Another aspect of this “globalization” is students’ mobility in seeking education in foreign countries. Wildavsky emphasizes how this globalization of higher education translates into increased mobility not only for students but also for faculty alike – and therefore into greater competition to attract the best. Students going abroad for educational opportunities dates back to the Middle Ages, but this trend has truly exploded in recent decades. If 800,000 people studied abroad in 1975, that number rose to 2 million in 2000, and to 3.3 million by 2008; or a staggering 65 percent increase in under a decade. Some observers even believe that the number of international students will jump to 8 million by 2025.

The U.S. continues to attract the largest share of these students, with 22 percent of the total market and nearly two-thirds at the graduate level, well ahead of Britain in second place. Even though that market share has been dropping in recent years, it can mostly be explained by the fact that the overall pie is getting bigger. As for the EU, its Erasmus program for mobility and cooperation in higher education has continued to grow since its inception in 1987. More than 180,000 students took advantage of this opportunity in 2007-2008 alone, and by 2009 Erasmus had exceeded the mark of 2 million students for its two decade history.

In addition to greater mobility, Wildavsky also addresses another consequence of globalization, namely how Western universities have not just sought to welcome foreign students but also proactively court them by establishing branch campuses, or satellite campuses, abroad: these include, for example, New York University and Paris Sorbonne in Abu Dhabi, or the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China. First developed in the mid-1990s, these cross-border outposts are becoming more and more prominent. There are now 162 such campuses, mostly concentrated in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, or a 60 percent increase in the space of a few years. While the latter take many different shapes or forms, they present stark contrasts with other study abroad centers because they mostly “cater to students from the immediate area or region, allowing them to enroll in a foreign university without uprooting themselves from their home countries.”

Finally, the Great Brain Race explains why we are witnessing an explosion of for-profit higher education worldwide. On the one hand, “the globalization of traditional research universities has so far been largely an elite phenomenon,” and for-profits have targeted the market of non-elite learners who want more practical degrees. On the other hand, government spending on post-secondary education has struggled to keep up with the rising middle class demand for higher education, especially in Asia and Latin America. For instance, “for-profit education now makes up 75 percent of enrollment in India and Brazil, 68 percent in the Philippines, and 80 percent in South Korea” to name a few. That large potential for growth has naturally attracted the attention of large American firms, including Whitney International, Kaplan Inc, or DeVry University.

Throughout the book, Wildavsky aims to convey two key messages. First, he passionately promotes the globalization of higher education, and the increased competition that comes with it, as a trend that can benefit all countries. He does so without glossing over the significant obstacles or missteps that have hindered this dramatic phenomenon so far. Protectionist impulses, or security concerns (such as those in post 9/11 America which slowed down the access to student visas) certainly continue to affect student and scholar mobility; several branch campuses have collapsed financially, like the University of New South Wales in Singapore, or never made it past the planning stage because of concerns over the inability of the host country to guarantee academic freedom; the academic rankings remain very controversial and contested; and the “notion that a nation whose education system is on the rise poses a threat to its economic competitors” remains widespread.

These concerns are serious and important, but Wildavsky views them as mostly inevitable growing pains, rather than insurmountable challenges. As a form of international trade, he argues that the “global academic competition is making free movement of people and ideas on the basis of merit, more and more the norm, with positive consequences for individuals, universities, and nations.” He adds that “increasing knowledge is not a zero-sum game” and that “intellectual gains by one country often benefit others.”

Also, while he consistently underlines that the increased global competition is a real phenomenon and that the West cannot rest on its laurels, he is quick to point out that the rest of the world will not be catching anytime soon. American institutions especially, and European ones to a lesser degree, continue to dominate the world rankings. As Richard Levin, Yale University’s President, emphasizes, the U.S. still “accounts for 40 percent of global spending on higher education and 35 percent on research and development, spending 2.9 percent of its GDP in 2005 on postsecondary education, compared to the less than 1.3 percent spent by China, India, the EU and Japan.” And even in the field of secondary education, the recent alarmism tied to the PISA results can be misleading. In a recent piece for Foreign Policy, Wildavsky questioned the conventional wisdom that American students were falling behind (which could also be true for many Europeans), and that there had ever been some sort of educational golden age, even in these countries.

Wildavsky’s book should be commended for striking the right balance between alarmism and complacency on Western predominance in higher education.


Garret Martin is a European Affairs Editor at large