BOOK REVIEW: “The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World” by Ben Wildavsky (2010)

The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the WorldDespite a few prestigious universities having been around for several centuries, such as Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, and the like, universities are, to some extent, a 19th century phenomenon, originally with the model created by Humboldt in Germany.  In fact, the massification of higher education is a post WWII phenomena.  Up until that time, only a small percentage of the population was able to go to university.  Today, higher education represents 1% of world GDP.

Key words

Education, Higher education, business schools,  international studies, distance learning, strategy.


The Great Brain Race then outlines some of the initiatives that have been taken by different universities and countries across the world to compete within higher education, which is large enough now to have the confidence to call itself an industry.  The book is packed full of facts and figures, and some lovely stories about successes and failures within higher education.

International education evolutionNaturally, international initiatives and international education in general is at the forefront of this development.  In the year 2000, 2 million students went to study abroad.  By 2009, according to the OECD, this had risen to 3.7 million, an 85% increase.  Like in other industries, higher education is following a trend, whereby Asia is increasingly getting a larger and larger share.  In research and development, this went from 27% in 2002 to 32% five years later.  Even Barack Obama has jumped into the bait concerning international students, delivering a speech in Texas in 2011, in which he said it was ridiculous that we could not find work for engineers and computer scientists that had come to some of America’s top universities to get a degree.  In fact, the US market share of international students has declined from 25% to just 18% today.

Countries attracting foreign students

Countries attempt to attract foreign students.

Wildavsky goes quickly through some of the initiatives that have been taken in international education.  In fact, there’s nothing particularly new about it, with Frederik Barbarossa in 1158 bringing in an authentica Habita, which encouraged individuals to travel and study to different parts of the world.  At the beginning of the 15th century, the University of Prague was attracting 2000 foreign students and 4000 foreign scholars.  What is new about this though is that there is now seemingly a form of country-to-country competition, with academics and politicians alike looking at the number of international students coming to their institutions.  There of course is also a huge debate about the merits of these students and whether or not they should be allowed to stay after their studies to find work.   Countries hitherto are known for foreign students, who are also jumping into the arena.  Australia, of course, has been having a very progressive and active policy for the last 10-15 years.  Now, countries such as Singapore and Malaysia are trying to get in on the act.  Singapore is hoping to attract 150,000 foreign students by 2015; Malaysia is hoping to attract 100,000.

Offsite Campuses

Universities that have managed to set up offsite campuses have not necessarily made a profit.

However, internationalization is not just about attracting a few students from abroad.  Many universities are looking to set up offsite campuses.  These have been more or less successful, perhaps the emphasis being on the ‘less.’  There are about 200 branch campuses in the world, and this has grown by 23% in the past few years.  However, Wildavsky points out some of the spectacular failures that have taken place, including the University of New South Wales in Singapore, and the University of Warwick’s aborted attempt in Singapore as well. Even though universities that have managed to set up campuses have not necessarily made a profit.

Higher Education Rankings - 800 pound gorilla

Wildavsky: no one assumed rankings would become the so-called 100 pound gorilla of higher education.

The book also gives an interesting analysis on rankings and their importance today.  In the mid 2000s, Wildavsky was the editor of the US News and World Report’s college guides, and got a stream of complaints from various Presidents and admissions officials about the rankings he was publishing.  He is well placed, therefore, to get into this debate.  In fact, at that time, rankings are relatively new, and he says that no one assumed they would become the so-called 800 pound gorilla of higher education.  Not only does this section deal with the US, but also differences throughout the world.  For example, in Greece, the rankings are strongly discouraged, though given the economy there at the moment, that’s probably not a great reference.  The ranking system has also led to various initiatives in countries, such as Germany, Russia, China, and France.  However, one thing that is common across the globe is that the majority of people are unhappy with their current rankings.  He quotes Hazelkorn’s study, which says that 58% are unhappy with the rankings, and 70% wanted to be in the top 10 of their national league table.

Kaplan Incorporated and Laureate International

Laureate and Kaplan have more than 150 campuses worldwide.

There is also a fascinating chapter on private education and the effect that it is having.  Some big players are coming into the market, notably Kaplan Incorporated and Laureate International, which today has more than 150 campuses across the world.  These were originally written off as being universities with a very low ranking and low status.  However, their growth has meant that mainstay universities are now having to stop and take notice.  Laureate International, for example, experienced 30% growth annually for six years running, and currently has $2 billion of revenue.

The University of Phoenix now has 400,000 students enrolled, and is the largest private university in the States. Three-quarters of its students are on distance learning courses.  International mobility is largely irrelevant for students that are involved in the private sector.  In fact, one of the many reasons that students sign up to these courses is that it means that they don’t have to leave home, and can continue working.  Such is the power of these institutions that one British academic, Roger King, has stated that Kaplan is, “hovering up institutions in the UK and Australia.”  Wildavsky believes that there is still more scope for international mobility for students.  In China, for example, 10 million high school students take the gaokao in 2008, and they are scrambling for just 5.7 million seats.  India has a similar problem to get into its highly competitive IITs or IIMs.  Many of the disappointed students turn to colleges and institutions abroad.  Finally, Mr. Wildavsky deals with some of the barriers to entry that exist, and indeed there are some.  India has repeatedly tried to keep out foreign universities, and the promised opening up of the higher educational sector is still not upon us.  In 1973, it actually limited the amount of US visiting scholars to 20 each year.  Though this does not just happen in Asia.  A doctorate that is earned outside of Germany will not be recognized by the German state, and in July 2005, the US Department of Defense tried to restrict research activities for international students.  Under pressure from many associations, they eventually back down.  What many politicians fail to realize under the weight of popular demand is that, as Yale President Richard Levin reminds us, the expansion of human capital is an opportunity rather than a threat.  Globalization is a positive sum game in education, just as it is in economics.  The author claims, therefore, that we should all be optimistic of the future of higher international education.

Ben Wildavsky talks about his book


Interesting Quotes

In the year 2000, two million students ventured outside their home countries to seek further education.  By 2009, according to the latest available numbers from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, global student mobility had risen to 3.7 million- a remarkable 85 percent increase.

Even at universities where there may be neither significantly 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.

Philip Altbach memorably observes, “Everyone wants one, no one knows what it is, and no one knows how to get one.”  Still, the widely shared understanding is that world-class institutions will be closely modeled on the Western research university- and in particular on the hugely successful American research university.

International Students at Chinese Universities

In 2007 China ranked sixth in the world in its enrollment of foreign students.

Over just a decade, from 1997 to 2007, the number of international students at Chinese universities rose from 39,000 to 195,000- a figure the government would like to raise still further.  Already in 2007, China ranked sixth in the world- after the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Australia- in its enrollment of foreign students.

Indian academics have no financial incentives for productivity, and by the same token it has been very difficult to pay top researchers the highly competitive salaries that would be required to keep them on campus.

Sciences Po has long been a beacon of excellence within France but has been less well known in Europe and around the world.  Since 1996, however, it has become globalized with a vengeance.  About 40 percent of its 6,700 students are international.

“It’s a lot harder to create world-class universities than other people think,” says George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen.  A look at lists of top U.S. universities in 1900, 1920, and 1940, he contends, when compared to today’s top schools, shows “basically no change” outside the growth of some elite institutions in California.

[T]he U.S. News rankings were contentious from the very start.  Launched in 1983, the rankings began simply enough as an outgrowth of another journalistic project for which the newsmagazine had received significant attention: a survey asking U.S. leaders to identify the most influential Americans.

“No one imagined that the rankings would become what some consider the 800-pound gorilla of American higher education,” writes Sanoff, “important enough to be the subject of doctoral dissertations, academic papers and conferences, and endless debate.”

Greeks and rankings

Rankings are strongly discouraged in Greece.

In Greece, two other researchers explained, rankings are strongly discouraged.

The rankings are still viewed as heavily tilted toward science (“the easiest way to boost rankings is to kill the humanities,” one university rector told Hazelkorn).

Academic peer review is at the heart of the THE approach.  It is based on about 9,400 responses over three years to an online survey distributed to academics worldwide, with the results weighed at 40 percent of the total- by far the largest factor (and considerably larger than the 25 percent that U.S. News devotes to its peer survey).

Hazelkorn’s multination study found that 58 percent of respondents were unhappy with their current ranking, that 70 percent wanted to be in the top 10 percent of their national league table, that 71 percent wanted to be in the top 25 percent internationally.

As Franz Van Vught of the European Center for Strategic Management of Universities argued at an OECD conference on measuring quality in higher education, if just 3 percent of the world’s 17,000 universities are world-class as measured by rankings, surely the rest cannot have utterly failed.

As of 2001, more than 90 million students around the world were enrolled in postsecondary institutions.  Just two years later, that figure had passed 100 million (with much of that increase taking place in China).  And by 2006 the number had risen to some 115 million students.

Elsewhere, for-profit higher education makes up an extremely high percentage of enrollment:

for-profit higher education

  • 80 percent in South Korea
  • 77 percent in Japan
  • 75 percent in India and Brazil
  • 68 percent in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Colombia
  • 63 percent in Belgium
  • The percentage is substantial in Mexico and in the United States as well, at 33 and 32 percent, respectively.

Laureate already has more than 150 campuses in North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia.  It offers a multitude of degrees in engineering, education, business, health care, hospitality, and information technology.  The company experienced 30 percent growth annually for six years running, with $2 billion a year in revenues.  CEO Becker projects that demand for higher education among eighteen-to twenty-four-year-olds will continue to grow by 10 percent a year.

This global brand mentality was captured in a 2008 survey by the British market research firm i-graduate, which polled international students from 221 countries studying at seventy-one British universities.  “These students are not choosing between the U.K. or the U.S.,” said Simon Bush, the firm’s head of analysis and research.  “They are choosing between Yale and Cambridge.”

Chinese higher education

One out of two chinese high school students get a place at nation’s college campuses.

The 10 million Chinese high school students who took the test in 2008 were all scrambling for just 5.7 million or so seats on the nation’s college campuses.

India has repeatedly sought to keep out foreign universities and, in some cases, foreign researchers.  At times, the barriers have been explicitly political and cultural in nature.  In 1973, officials announced that India would limit the number of American scholars permitted to visit the country to twenty each year.

Between 1995 and 2005, 25 percent of all American engineering and technology companies were founded by immigrants- including half of those in Silicon Valley.  Nearly one-quarter of all international patent applications filed from the United States in 2006 named foreign nationals as inventors.  Indeed, a 2004 study conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado and the World Bank found that a 10 percent rise in the number of foreign graduate students in the United States would increase overall patent applications by 3.3 percent and patents granted to universities by 6 percent.

While immigrants made up just 12 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2000, they accounted for fully 47 percent of scientists and engineers with PhDs, according to an analysis of that year’s census.

Broadly speaking, there is every reason to be optimistic about the continued globalization of higher education.  If knowledge is not seen as a finite resource but as a public good open to all, educational institutions that generate knowledge should be welcomed everywhere.


See also:

Other Book Reviews

Book Review: The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World

London School of Economics Blog: “The Great Brain Race is topical and makes a compelling argument. However, it would be even stronger if it was more nuanced and involved a greater awareness of historical context.”

An old idea refashioned

The Economist: “Universities are obsessed by the global marketplace for students and professors. They are trying to attract as many students from abroad as possible (not least because foreign students usually pay full fees). Nearly 3m students now spend some time studying in foreign countries, a number that has risen steeply in recent years.”

Review of “The Great Brain Race,” by Ben Wildavsky

Washington Post: “The author also explores the latest attempts to rate the world’s top colleges now that more students are degree-shopping across borders.”


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Filed under Book Review, Business, Business Schools, Higher Education, International studies, Rankings, Strategy, Study Abroad, USA

3 responses to “BOOK REVIEW: “The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World” by Ben Wildavsky (2010)

  1. Pingback: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World” by Ben Wildavsky (2010) | MemePosts

  2. Fascinating! I need to read this book. Thanks for such a well written blog!

  3. Thank you for this lovely post! A very interesting read too! 🙂

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