Understanding the Great Brain Race in Higher Education

Ben Wildavsky
Director of Higher Education Studies, Rockefeller Institute of Government, State University of New York

For decades, research universities in the United States have been universally acknowledged as the world's leaders in science and engineering, unsurpassed since World War II in the sheer volume and excellence of the scholarship and innovation they generate. But there are growing signs that the rest of the world is gaining ground fast—building new universities, improving existing ones, competing hard for the best students, and recruiting U.S.-trained Ph.D.s to return home to work in university and industry labs. Is the international scholarly pecking order about to be overturned?

There is no question that the academic enterprise has become increasingly global, particularly in the sciences. Nearly three million students now study outside their home countries—a 57 percent increase in the last decade. Foreign students now dominate many U.S. doctoral programs, accounting for 64 percent of Ph.D.s in computer science, for example. Tsinghua and Peking universities together recently surpassed Berkeley as the top sources of students who go on to earn American Ph.D.s.

Faculty members are on the move, too. Half of the world's top physicists no longer work in their native countries. And major institutions such as New York University and the University of Nottingham are creating branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia. There are now 162 satellite campuses worldwide, an increase of 43 percent in just the past three years.

At the same time, growing numbers of traditional source countries for students, from South Korea to Saudi Arabia, are trying to improve both the quantity and quality of their own degrees, engaging in a fierce—and expensive—race to recruit students and create world-class research universities of their own.

The globalization of higher education should be embraced, not feared—including in the United States.

All this competition has led to considerable hand-wringing in the West. During a 2008 campaign stop, for instance, then-candidate Barack Obama spoke in alarmed tones about the threat that such academic competition poses to U.S. competitiveness. "If we want to keep on building the cars of the future here in America," he declared, "we can't afford to see the number of Ph.D.s in engineering climbing in China, South Korea, and Japan even as it's dropped here in America."

Nor are such concerns limited to the United States. In some countries, worries about educational competition and brain drains have led to outright academic protectionism. India and China are notorious for the legal and bureaucratic obstacles they place in front of Western universities that want to set up satellite campuses catering to local students.

And sometimes students who want to leave face barriers. Several years ago, the president of one of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology effectively banned undergraduates from accepting academic or business internships overseas.

There are other impediments to global mobility, too, not always explicitly protectionist, but all having the effect of limiting access to universities around the world. In the years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for example, legitimate security concerns led to enormous student-visa delays and bureaucratic hassles for foreigners aspiring to study in the United States. Student numbers have since rebounded, despite intermittent problems, but there remain severe limits on work and residency visas, which should serve as an enticement for the best and brightest to study in the United States.

Perhaps some of the anxiety over the new global academic enterprise is understandable, particularly in a period of massive economic uncertainty. But educational protectionism is as big a mistake as trade protectionism is. The globalization of higher education should be embraced, not feared—including in the United States. There is every reason to believe that 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 train talented graduates who can strengthen increasingly knowledge-based economies will be good for the United States, as well.

Above all, this is because the expansion of knowledge is not a zero-sum game. More Ph.D. production and burgeoning research in China, for instance, doesn't take away from America's store of learning; on the contrary, it enhances what we know and can accomplish. Because knowledge is a public good, intellectual gains by one country often benefit others. Chinese research may well provide the building blocks for innovation by U.S. entrepreneurs—or those from other countries.

Indeed, the economic benefits of a global academic culture are significant. Just as free trade 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, universities, and countries. Today's swirling patterns of mobility and knowledge transmission constitute a new kind of free trade: free trade in minds.

The United States should respond to the globalization of higher education not with angst but with a sense of possibility. Neither a gradual erosion in the U.S. market share of students, nor the emergence of ambitious new competitors in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East means that American universities are on an inevitable path to decline.

By resisting protectionist barriers at home and abroad, by continuing to recruit and welcome the world's best students, by sending more students overseas, by fostering cross-national research collaboration, and by strengthening its own research universities, the United States can sustain its well-established academic excellence while continuing to expand the sum total of global knowledge and prosperity.

This essay is an excerpt from the Kauffman Thoughtbook 2011.