Ben Wildavsky has produced a first-rate look at higher education in motion around the world as countries and universities compete for students, faculty, prestige, and, yes, rankings. He details the strategies being used to develop world-class universities in China, Saudi Arabia, Germany, France, Qatar, Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and India, weaving in the role of branch campuses, online learning and the for-profits in the rapid and transformative change now underway. For anyone wanting to understand globalization of higher education - leaders and students of higher education as well as the public - this is an energetic and optimistic book and a good read.
Engaging and entertaining review of the state of global higher education
This is an engaging and entertaining review of the state of global higher education. Two of the three themes developed in the book - the internationalization of (mostly Western) World-Class Universities and the evolution of global ranking systems - hang well together. The third, the spread of for-profit education - like the US based companies Laureate (Sylvan Learning, Walden University), Apollo Group (University of Phoenix), Kaplan, etc - seemed like an afterthought.
Wildavsky argues - passionately at times - that "free trade in minds" - the ability of students and faculty to pursue their education and research in a borderless barrier-less global higher education environment "holds the key to sustaining the world's knowledge economy and ultimately restoring global prosperity." He tends to dismiss concerns about access and affordability and erosion of national identity as so much protectionism, whether by governments or by academics - and maybe he is right - but his analysis of motivation is somewhat tainted by his own gung ho partisanship for his favored argument. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for an overview of this fast developing sector.
First, as a university professor, I found the issues within this book provocative at many levels. I have taught "study abroad", foreign and domestic students, introductory and graduate level courses. The collection of issues relates to the functioning of my Department and my University. I've thought the book would be a great basis for a faculty retreat. But, I do have some problems with the book.
First, the author relies on his status as a "reporter" for his credentials. A "Kaufman fellow" doesn't really mean that one understands or has experienced what goes on within a university. I would like to have known what his academic background was. He references lots of names from the academy, but alas, almost all are administrators. (Since he approaches higher education as an industry he might have looked to recent critique of the US auto industry where CEOs and the board members often had no idea what was going on in the industry.) In this volume, Wildavsky focuses on "administrators" and reveals little understanding of the fabric of an education and especially the role of teaching and teachers. Indeed, professors have two often divergent demands placed on them: doing publishable & fundable research AND teaching, it would have been good to know that he had/has informed knowledge of these functions and how they vary by institution. Focusing on administrators may or may not give a clear view of what goes on.
An example from my own experience is relevant to this point and more. A very important administrator here seriously argued that there should be NO prerequisites for any course within the university; we should recognize that the student is the customer and the customer is always right. "There's no reason a student has to study Beowulf in order to study Shakespeare." This notion, I have since argued, was evidence that this administrator didn't really understand classroom dynamics and what a teacher/professor is faced with. Courses are most often NOT discrete stand-alone units; they are part of a sequence, perhaps a fabric, of other courses. A simplistic example: one needs to understand algebra in order to properly grasp the calculus. Now, if the administration did away with prerequisites and 20 of 25 students in an introductory calculus class hadn't had algebra what could/would the teacher of the calculus class do? First, since the mindset is to "give the student what they want, they are the customer" would suggest that failing the 20 for not "getting" calculus is not a good strategy, although it's possible. Alternatively, the second strategy would be to lower the class material, do an accelerated "algebra," and thereby shortchange the 5 students/customers who came prepared. The third strategy, teaching to the "middle," would leave all the customers unsatisfied. Ironically, a "merit" approach to evaluating teaching would "force" the teacher to adopt the second strategy - dilute the material. To the extent that education is a market we aren't "selling" discrete courses; we need to market the full experience. So, if a student wanted to be educated about English literature it might be important to know Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare in sequence rather than isolation. Wildavsky presents this "market" model as appropriate.
"Globalization of post secondary education" is the core of Wildavsky's book but he never comes to grips with the variation in secondary and pre-secondary education and how different institutions and students might deal with it. Simply, not all university freshmen/women are alike, there are individual variations. I went to a small college (~3,000) for BA, small university for MA (~11,000), and a large university for PhD (~34,000). This sequence was good for my intellectual evolution. I've now been teaching in a university for 35 years and note global and cultural variations exist also. Wildavsky pretty well ignores these too. I vividly recall a graduate student from the middle east, coming from a heavily Koranic studies university; he could memorize enormous amounts of text (entire chapters from the SPSS manual) but couldn't use or understand what he'd read and memorized. I quite recently had a Chinese graduate student say to me "In China we all take calculus but we don't learn what to do with it." Grossly generalizing, students from the West are able to "think outside the box" more easily than Asian students. Higher education, indeed all education, is a communication between individuals. Culture sets rules, customs, and boundaries for these dialogues. Students from some parts of the world bring a strict formality to communications with professors. I learned to invert questions for some, as in "You don't understand what I've just told you, do you?" I learned to do this because these students would always nod "yes" even when they didn't have a clue what I was talking about. Wildavsky doesn't deal with these sorts of variations.
Wildavsky does spend a large amount of the book (self) defending rankings of universities. There is recognition that these "rankings" have several audiences, student, their families, university administrators, and governments. However, Wildavsky doesn't address the fundamentally different needs of these audiences for the rankings. For example, a high school senior and her family are more interested in rankings of entire universities and less in subject rankings; probably just domestic not global rankings.
Wildavsky, building on the marketing model, also discusses for-profit universities without ever distinguishing between education and training. Here the word university becomes even more fuzzy and the distinction, made above in this review and NOT made by Wildavsky, that education is more than a few discrete courses, is important. If I want to learn how to function efficiently with MicroSoft's Excel, I might take a course at a local for-profit, but a program in Computer Science is more than 5 or 6 software courses. Wildavsky's discussion of the for-profits recognizes that there "is legitimate concerns about their shortcomings" (p 159) but he doesn't discuss what those shortcomings are. I kept thinking of a comparison between the real estate mortgage crisis of 2007-9 and the looming student loan debt crisis. For-profit Universities within the US are flourishing on the profitability of loosely regulated student loans. Sadly, while an individual can walk away from a mortgage and incur limited long term liability, students cannot walk away from student loans. Abroad, the profit motive isn't restricted to for-profit schools.
A must read for those who care about the future of education
Wildavsky does for higher education what Tom Friedman did for business, telling the stories of the current state and future prospects of global higher education. He does a masterful job of describing the new frontier of competition and mobility and how our cherished universities, the crown jewels of the USA, can either rise to the challenges or face a diminished future. A must read for all those working in or around colleges and universities.
In The GreatBrainRace, former U.S. News & World Report education editor Ben Wildavsky presents the first popular account of how international competition for the brightest minds is transforming the world of higher education--and why this revolution should be welcomed, not feared. Every year, nearly three million international students study outside of their home countries, a 40 percent increase since 1999. Newly created or expanded universities in China, India, and Saudi Arabia are competing with the likes of Harvard and Oxford for faculty, students, and research preeminence. Satellite campuses of Western universities are springing up from Abu Dhabi and Singapore to South Africa. Wildavsky shows that as international universities strive to become world-class, the new global education marketplace is providing more opportunities to more people than ever before.
Drawing on extensive reporting in China, India, the United States, Europe, and the Middle East, Wildavsky chronicles the unprecedented international mobility of students and faculty, the rapid spread of branch campuses, the growth of for-profit universities, and the remarkable international expansion of college rankings. Some university and government officials see the rise of worldwide academic competition as a threat, going so far as to limit student mobility or thwart cross-border university expansion. But Wildavsky argues that this scholarly marketplace is creating a new global meritocracy, one in which the spread of knowledge benefits everyone--both educationally and economically.