It is easy to become inured to the rhetoric of globalization, which seems to be on the lips of every ambitious college president. But the trend is real and important. National borders are simply less relevant than they once were. Student and faculty mobility has exploded. Cross-national research collaboration is more common than ever. International college rankings proliferate.
Perhaps the most fundamental shift for higher education is that the merit principle is becoming increasingly dominant, within and across nations. The best students are shopping for the best universities like consumers in a worldwide marketplace—and universities seeking world-class status are similarly eager to recruit top students and faculty members.
Many questions about the future of globalized higher education remain unanswered. The rising mobility of recent decades seems likely to continue—but at what rate and in which directions? Will the cross-border movement of students begin to change from a mostly elite to a mass phenomenon? Will the explosive growth of for-profit institutions continue? Those are just a few of the uncertainties.
Whatever direction global higher education takes, one thing is clear: The growing number of internationally mobile students, intent on finding excellence in research and teaching, have begun to create a world in which, to an unprecedented extent, talent can be identified and find the best possible academic home—a version of what, in real estate, is known as the "highest and best use." Policy makers who seek to reap the advantages of a thriving and open higher-education system will make little headway toward creating good universities, let alone globally great ones, without understanding that meritocracy and the free exchange of ideas form the core of the university.
To be sure, that road is not always easy to follow. Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, has noted, "Many of the world's universities are not meritocratic institutions. People are appointed because of who they know, because they're in certain categories of the population." But for nations and universities that want to become part of the global academic conversation, such corrupt policies are now untenable. The market pressures of academic globalization will make it harder than ever to cling to cronyism and mediocrity, and nations and institutions that embrace the merit principle, along with an open educational market, will be the ones that reap the greatest benefits.
The biggest factor driving continued growth in higher education worldwide is the mounting evidence of the economic advantages of postsecondary education for both individuals and societies. It may be a commonplace to say that the world has moved from a manufacturing to a service to a knowledge economy, but sometimes truisms are just that—true. To compete successfully in the community of nations, a modern economy clearly must embrace higher education. And universities will increasingly need to take part in a global conversation of ideas and a global exchange of scholars.
The good news is that more and more nations are joining this movement. The bad news is that mercantilism—the outdated notion that a nation's economic prosperity rests on its ability to hold on to the maximum possible share of a finite amount of global capital—persists in higher education. Almost every day brings word of policy directives, large and small, that are apparently driven by restrictionist impulses.
Some governments and universities around the world have responded to the growth of cross-border higher education with outright academic protectionism. China and India, for example, are notorious for the bureaucratic barriers they erect to foreign universities wishing to open new campuses or create new partnerships (although India has recently shown promising indications of greater openness). Other nations focus not on keeping foreign institutions out but on excluding foreign students and trying to keep domestic students at home.
In Malaysia, the Ministry of Higher Education has gone so far as to place a 5-percent cap on the number of foreign undergraduates who can attend the country's public universities. Elsewhere, notably in the United States, scholarly mobility has been slowed or halted by visa policies that are typically not protectionist in any explicit sense but nonetheless have unfortunate effects. Stepped-up security reviews since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, while justifiable in some cases, have had the de facto effect of keeping out students and professors who would be an asset to American universities and the nation. At the same time, the stringent limits that have been placed on visas for highly skilled workers—in the name of protecting jobs—have created an obstacle to attracting some talented international scholars, who often attend American universities in the hope of staying on to work and in some cases to become permanent residents or citizens.
More broadly, an even larger barrier to the flourishing of global higher education is psychological: It can be seen in the widespread notion that a nation whose education system is on the rise poses a threat to its economic competitors. That phenomenon is, of course, particularly noticeable in the case of the West's fear about the rise of China and other Asian nations. It has become commonplace to fret, or even panic, about the alleged peril, both educational and economic, posed by the enormous number of science and engineering Ph.D.'s produced by those nations.
But the globalization of higher education should be embraced, not feared. The worldwide competition for human talent, the race to conduct innovative research, the push to extend university campuses to multiple countries, and the rush to produce knowledgeable and creative graduates who can strengthen increasingly knowledge-based economies—all of those trends are hugely beneficial to the entire world.
Increasing knowledge is not a zero-sum game. Intellectual gains by one country often benefit others. More Ph.D. production in China, for instance, doesn't take away from America's store of learning. In fact, Chinese research may well provide the building blocks for innovation by American entrepreneurs—or those from other nations.
Just as free trade in manufacturing provides the lowest-cost goods, 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 people, for universities, and for nations. Several decades ago, there was widespread concern about the brain drain experienced by developing countries whose most-promising citizens often departed to seek better educational opportunities and better lives in the West. More recently, however, that term has been joined by "brain circulation" or "brain exchange," as many of those who had left nations like India or China begin to return home to seize opportunities in newly booming economies—including, especially in China, revitalized universities. What the global university movement promises to do is to go one step further: from brain circulation to what might be called brain growth.
Broadly speaking, we have 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. So should the talented students who roam the globe seeking the best opportunities they can find. The challenge will be to fend off periodic bouts of academic protectionism, whether directed at branch campuses, at foreign students, at the export of scholarship or human talent, or at ascendant institutions in distant lands that are wrongly perceived as a threat to domestic universities.
That isn't to say that global competition in university education won't create winners and losers along the way. No doubt it will. But again, as with other kinds of free trade, the net benefits will be significant. Globalization has accelerated, and will continue to accelerate, three of the most important higher-education trends of the last half century—mass access, significantly greater use of technology, and growing reliance on the merit principle. Indeed, academic free trade may be more important than any other kind.
All this has one clear policy consequence: Nations around the world should move quickly to lower barriers, both practical and psychological, to truly global higher education. The United States, for one, should respond to the globalization of higher education not with fear but with a sense of possibility. There is nothing wrong with nations competing, trying to improve their citizens' human capital and to reap the economic benefits that come with more and better education. Moreover, as many economists observe, research discoveries in other nations provide fodder for American innovators and may redound to the benefit of the U.S. economy.
Today's period of university globalization is at first glance a far cry from the era inaugurated by the wandering scholars of medieval Europe, the earliest academic globe-trotters in the West. But there are unmistakable parallels. Knowledge changes the world. And with the right kind of encouragement, the far-reaching intellectual ferment now under way could have a transformational effect similar to that of the 12th-century renaissance of learning. From the United States and Britain to India, China, and the Middle East, policy makers should applaud—and encourage—the movement toward global universities. Ultimately, it holds the keys to sustaining the knowledge economy and advancing worldwide prosperity.