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The Great Brain Race

Ben Wildavsky

WASHINGTON, DC – 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 that 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 US-trained PhDs 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%
increase in the last decade. Foreign students now dominate many US doctoral programs,
accounting for 64% of PhDs 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 PhDs.

Faculty 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% 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.

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 US 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 PhDs in engineering climbing in China, South Korea, and Japan even as it’s dropped
here in America.”

Nor are such concerns limited to the US. 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
US. 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 US.

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. The globalization of higher education should be
embraced, not feared – including in the US. 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 US as well.

Above all, this is because the expansion of knowledge is not a zero-sum game. More PhD
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 US 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 US should respond to the globalization of higher education not with angst but with a sense
of possibility. Neither a gradual erosion in the US 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 US can sustain
its well-established academic excellence while continuing to expand the sum total of global
knowledge and prosperity.

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation
and author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the
World.