The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World
reviewed by Leon Cremonini - November 15, 2010
Title: The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World
Author(s): Ben Wildavsky
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691146896, Pages: 248, Year: 2010
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Ben Wildavskys The Great Brain Race provides thorough insight into how higher education is playing its part in todays globalized world and the other way around. That higher education has gone global it is argued not only can no longer be ignored, but should in fact be considered an opportunity for institutional and systemic development. Opting out is not an option. Instead, the challenge is to capitalize on the chances offered by globalization, which is leaving no shore untouched. The key argument is that in the wake of globalization, higher education has become a form of international trade that should be subject to market principles just like any other form of trade. Competition for global market shares is increasingly fierce. As the title of the volume implies, Wildavsky suggests that institutions and nations are actively trying to attract the brightest brains worldwide. He provides a meticulous but not dreary account of the many ways this is happening around the world.
The book includes six chapters, plus an introduction and an afterword. It covers the main aspects of higher education, from student choice to national strategies to go global. Starting off with a look at student mobility (zooming in on the new kind of students and their global aspirations), the argument follows a logical path. First, Wildavsky focuses on the different ways institutions try to attract students, brand themselves, or physically position themselves within reach through branch campuses in profitable markets. He then takes us a step further, into the international realm of global rankings and reactions to them by institutions and nation-states that are increasingly faced with new forms of accountability. Chapter 5 is devoted to the private for-profit institutions and their reinforced role in the world an interesting development not studied in great detail before now.
Wildavsky skillfully combines information gathered first-hand (e.g. in interviews with institutional leaders), anecdotal evidence, and his own knowledge of university rankings, with a keen awareness of the scholarly debates on higher education and its developments over time. As to its perspective, The Great Brain Race is suited for a large audience and demonstrates an admirable degree of internationality. Yet, it remains a fundamentally American account of international developments in higher education. It is with no veiled pride that the author points out how nations all over the world are trying to create U.S.-style research institutions, which can top global league tables. Vertical differentiation is said to be an inevitable development in countries such as Germany where tradition calls for equality among institutions wherever located. And Wildavsky has a point the interesting and detailed chapter on excellence initiatives shows that governments are increasingly promoting vertical diversity of their higher education systems in the struggle to compete with the best universities in the world.
The account of global rankings (Chapter 4) and how they are re-shaping the way we assess institutions and the way institutions themselves behave strategically, sustains the argument that vertical diversity is on the rise. And indeed there is much evidence suggesting that rankings affect institutional and national behaviors.
All too true. And yet at times Wildavsky seems to suggest a somewhat normative view of institutional quality, accepting without question the belief that research universities are (and should remain) the model of excellence. He glosses over much of the critiques rankings have received over the years particularly the role of prestige (pursuing which much money is spent) generally deemed a questionable proxy for educational quality.
Although not a scholarly volume in the traditional sense of the word, the theoretical backbone of Wildavskys book seems to lie in world polity theories such as those of the Stanford School (e.g. John Meyer). The explicit suggestion is that the American standard is being pursued around the world as a model for higher education excellence and competitiveness.
Overall, The Great Brain Race is a gratifying reading experience. Skillfully written and fast-paced, Wildavskys contribution is an undoubted added-value to our understanding of an inevitably internationalized higher education landscape. The author betrays American-style optimism in his belief that globalization can empower people to advance based on know how rather than on status. He convincingly makes the point that globalization is an opportunity rather than a threat to higher education. And while this review has mentioned that U.S. goggles are apparent, this by no means suggests an uncritical jaunty portrayal of Americas latest success. The book not only adds value to our understanding of how globalization is bringing the higher education market to a whole new level, but it should also be considered a wake-up call for the United States and others to go beyond complacent self-images about their higher education systems, and look at the wider world as a new pool of opportunity. Whether for academics or practitioners, this is a timely publication and a must for anyone interested in making the best of todays higher education.