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

South Asian Journal of Global Business Research

ISSN: 2045-4457

Article publication date: 17 August 2012



Cavallaro, E. (2012), "The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World", South Asian Journal of Global Business Research, Vol. 1 No. 2, pp. 318-321.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Globalization has resulted in an increased mobility of students and faculty globally, the worldwide expansion of campuses and the international coordination of college rankings. Many western universities have built satellite and branch campuses globally and recently universities in Asia and the Middle East have also expanded to add to the competition. The globalization of higher education has impacted nearly every part of the world. In his book, The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Shaping the World, Ben Wildavsky describes this process and discusses the impacts of globalization of higher education.

Ben Wildavsky is a senior fellow in research and policy at the Kauffman Foundation and the former US News & World Report education editor, where he was in charge of annual US college rankings. In this book, he draws on his rankings expertise, as well as extensive reporting in China, India, the USA, Europe and the Middle East. He states that he also completed over 100 interviews with university administrators, professors, students, ranking experts and economists, to analyze the growing globalization of higher education and to understand its impact on the global economy.

Wildavsky identifies an important niche for his book and contends that not enough attention has been paid to the transformative nature of campus globalization, which is providing education opportunities to people all over the world. He dismisses concerns related to “brain drain” and academic protectionism to mostly highlight the positive impacts of global education.

The author provides a vast depth of knowledge on the subject. To enhance the reader's understanding, the first chapter details the history of international universities dating as far back as the early 1200s. Wildavsky offers a balanced analysis of global expansion of higher education, addressing the positive effects, as well as the negative. The core argument of the book is made very clear in the introduction “higher education has become a form of international trade – and the beneficial principles of free trade should be applied to this scholarly exchange” (p. 12). Wildavsky contends that free trade benefits the economy by providing consumers with more options, enhancing business growth and increasing the flow of capital and that global higher education does the same with the flow of knowledge and ideas. This theme carries throughout the book's first five chapters related to student mobility; western university branch campuses; the creation of world‐class universities; global college rankings; and private, for‐profit institutions. The final chapter synthesizes this information in the context of the author's core argument from an economic perspective. This is how the author evaluates the economic and educational benefits of knowledge sharing throughout his book.

Wildavsky provides the evidence of the economic benefits of higher education for both individuals and societies. He argues that higher education helps individuals widen their intellectual horizons and improve their personal economic prospects. In addition, universities produce research that fosters the innovation and entrepreneurship to lead to economic growth. Wildavsky argues that just as constraining traditional forms of trade stunts economic creativity, preventing the free flow of people and ideas impedes the knowledge creation that is essential for economic development and growth globally. Evidence for this primary argument is provided through experiences of individuals that are relevant for the reader. For example, in Chapter 1 Wildavsky tells the story of a South African chemistry student exploring a myriad of global options for PhD studies. This clearly highlights the worldwide race among universities for talent, as well as the increased options available to many students globally. An interview in Chapter 6 with Vivek Upadhyay, a student in his final year at the IIT, Bombay exploring career options, also illustrates widening of the global talent pool.

Although a majority of the research is carried out through interviews with university administrators, students and professors, a wide variety of relevant reports and rankings are also cited. In particular, the author relies on OECD data, as cited in The Global Competition for Talent Report. For example, throughout the book the point is made that increasing knowledge is not a zero‐sum gain because intellectual gains by one country often benefit other countries in the global economy. A similar point was made in the OECD executive summary of the report: “emigration of skilled workers can also spur human capital accumulation in the sending country […] indicating it is not a zero‐sum game” (OECD, 2008, p. 3).

A detailed account of the global university marketplace is useful for understanding the impact of globalization on universities and thereby of higher education on the global economy. An illustrative example is the recent higher education reforms in Pakistan, aimed at strengthening research and education infrastructure in the country. This has resulted in the development of many new universities and colleges as well as enhancing the quality of existing ones by initiating scholar exchanges and providing scholarships for doctoral studies (Khilji, 2012). The reforms have thus led to greater mobility of talent. Given its large young population, Pakistan is well positioned to cater to developing its talent to address the changing needs of the global environment. Other South Asian countries have also joined the race by hosting satellite campuses of western universities and sourcing students to global universities. In the future, South Asian countries are likely to attract more international scholars to their home universities and ultimately create their own world‐class global institutions.

Implementation of higher educational reforms in South Asia can enable the region to benefit from the opportunities of global education. Wildavsky makes a policy recommendation that countries around the world should lower both the practical and psychological barriers to global education. Opening the South Asian region to global education will not only result in knowledge gains, but also economic development. Wildavsky argues the global expansion of human capital will result in significant economic returns and powerful incentive for nations to expand and globalize their university systems. In the final chapter of the book, Wildavsky cites multiple economists that contend academic advances in one country benefit another. For example, economist and Yale University President, Richard Levin asserts that Asian universities and their western partners will profit from collaboration, as will everyone else, because knowledge is a public good.

Involvement in the global university marketplace also has implications for potential socio‐economic development opportunities in South Asia. Wildavsky argues that countries that engage in global higher education benefit economically and socially. Because of the gradual lowering of political, economic and cultural barriers to overseas study, educational globalization leads to fluidity, mobility and economic growth. Specifically, the South Asian region is likely to benefit from this phenomenon because of its growing number of a young and mobile population. The large and growing young population in South Asia is a development opportunity because higher education works like a business. According to Wildavsky “when customers want what universities have to offer, universities will find a way to reach those customers” (p. 43). As this growing young population nears adulthood, demand for education and training is increasing, it is likely that global universities will begin expanding into South Asian countries to meet that demand and local/regional universities also expand to capture a market share. If a higher number of young South Asians receive a global education, their skills will then be desirable in managing and leading international businesses, resulting in a larger share of the global workforce (Khilji, 2012) and much economic development in the region.

South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world. Regional globalism (defined as the attempt within regions to attract more foreign students to their own institutions to add international character to campuses as well as a source of tuition revenues) may help address the problem of integration within the region. According to Wildavsky, India is increasingly likely to attract students from the region as their economy and centers of academic excellence continue to improve. “India will be an attractive destination for students from other South Asian countries” (p. 37). This within‐region interaction may serve to decrease isolation, improve regional integration and reduce internal conflicts. In addition, academic circulation of people and ideas on the global marketplace may help integrate the region with the rest of the world through an improved understanding of differences and acceptance of diversity. This provides a potential for positive multi‐directional effects. South Asian countries will benefit from incoming information and ideas, while other regions will benefit from South Asian perspectives at global universities across the world. These improved relations may also have the potential to address terrorism, as education is often seen as key to reducing global tensions. The history in Chapter 1 mentions the post‐World War II efforts to utilize higher education as a tool for diplomacy and international cooperation, though the author does not address the issue of terrorism directly.

Throughout the book, the involvement of East, South East and Central Asian countries in the globalization of higher education is detailed, but other than India, South Asian countries are conspicuously absent (probably because of their smaller populations when compared to India). For example, China and India are the top senders of students to Great Britain and Australia; over half of foreign nationals studying in the USA are from Asia; professors emigrating to Britain come primarily from India and Central Asia; and the largest concentrations of western university branch and satellite campuses are in South East Asia, with a growing number in India, China and Central Asia. The significant presence of Asian students in the global marketplace is explained by the strong cultural priority placed on education. “In Asia, culturally, parents consider investment in education the highest priority. Whatever resources they have left they’ll put into educating their kids” (p. 41).

According to Wildavsky, an important asset for global universities is expanded online presence and access to distance learning technology. A lack of easy access to internet and technology could significantly limit the productivity of academic engagement in a country. Another barrier that has been faced by global universities attempting to enter certain countries is political objections. For example, Wildavsky interviewed a large for‐profit university that was prevented from entering the high‐demand market in India when powerful socialists vetoed the plan. Such barriers could prevent South Asia from continuing to benefit from the educational opportunities offered by global universities. If South Asian countries cannot overcome these issues, they may miss the opportunity to take part in the flow of knowledge and ideas that has the potential to improve their economy. Despite the overall positive tone of this book, Wildavsky does express concerns that in developing nations where university access is severely limited, large swaths of the populations may be left out of the global education revolution. Certainly South Asia cannot afford for this to happen.

Wildavsky does not address this concern for developing regions in the lengthy discussion on university rankings, on which too much importance is placed. While the development of international rankings does illustrate the significant impact of globalization, it does not contribute significantly to the global economic perspective. International rankings may one day spread to every corner of the globe, however in the immediate future, university rankings are not relevant to developing regions, the places that need the economic benefits the most.

The book centers on the effects of globalization but little attention is paid to culture. The author takes a practical and economic perspective on global education, with less focus on factors such as the complex intersection of diverse cultures, erosion of national identity, and results of cultural convergence and divergence. It seems the reader is meant to assume that cultural interaction should be considered one of the many positive impacts of global knowledge circulation, neutralizing any potential negative consequences. However I am not sure that this is the case.

Overall, Wildavsky presents a solid and detailed analysis of the global education market for all readers. The book is relevant not just for academic audiences, but anyone interested in globalization or the economy, which Wildavsky shows are tightly linked with higher education. Though the author may be overly reliant on an economic perspective at the expense of important cultural considerations, the optimistic message about the positive impact of knowledge circulation is a refreshing one. This book's potential to help alleviate fears and hesitancy about global knowledge circulation may be valuable in freeing up energy to pursue these many new opportunities.

Elizabeth Cavallaro

About the reviewer

Elizabeth Cavallaro is a doctoral student in the department of Human and Organizational Learning at The George Washington University, USA. Her research focuses on sustainability and social change. Elizabeth Cavallaro can be contacted at:


Khilji, S.E. (2012), “Does South Asia matter? Rethinking South Asia as relevant in international business research”, South Asian Journal of Global Business Research, Vol. 1 No. 1, pp. 821.

OECD (2008), The Global Competition for Talent [Electronic Resource]: Mobility of the Highly Skilled/Organisation for Economic Co‐Operation and Development, OECD Publishing, Paris.

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