Book Reviews

Book by Ben Wildavsky
Review by Mark Rohland
Academic Advisor, College of Liberal Arts
Temple University


The burgeoning global economy has spurred significant growth in higher education across borders. Wildavsky, an esteemed education reporter, surveys this growth and consequent changes in higher education, and outlines larger changes in world prosperity promised by this “free trade in minds” (p. 167). His attitude towards the changes is clearly positive, though he thoughtfully considers problems they pose.

The book examines important trends in global higher education: increasing student and faculty movement to campuses abroad, establishment of overseas branch campuses, competition that drives universities to raise research and instruction to the highest world standards, new global ranking systems that set those standards, the role of for-profit institutions in the global higher education market, and expected benefits of this thriving market.

Wildavsky ably connects these trends to each other and to world economic development. For instance, he shows that student movement to overseas institutions drives the race for higher standards: “As students become more mobile, universities move across borders” to serve and gain from these footloose education consumers, “and competition for world-class status becomes ever more intense” (p. 101). Moreover, branch campuses foster understanding across cultures that can stimulate further mobility. And for-profit institutions move abroad to provide education that is urgently needed to support economic growth in developing countries, customizing their services to local conditions. Wildavsky highlights for-profits like Laureate Education, which envisions itself as “a culturally aware parent company of a network of distinctive local institutions” (pp. 156-157).

Wildavsky excels at developing ideas with statistics and illustrative stories. His figures demonstrate that the U.S. is becoming less competitive in attracting foreign students, with its international student enrollments growing less quickly than those of Australia and several European countries (p. 23). Meanwhile, countries like China, longstanding sources of overseas enrollments here, are increasingly attracting overseas students themselves (p. 24). And reporting on a lesson at New York University’s new Abu Dhabi branch by NYU’s president John Sexton, Wildavsky illustrates the dynamic interaction, the free trade among minds, that emerges when U.S. academic culture meets a very different one. Through such figures and anecdotes, Wildavsky conveys what is novel and exciting in global higher education today.

It is hard to find fault with this astute account. Some key ideas demand more evidence. Wildavsky looks forward to intellectual benefits from the “brain exchange” (p. 27) of faculty to overseas campuses, but presents little proof of current advantages. And his approving description of increased student movement leaves unexamined the specific opportunities and challenges facing international students. Still, such lapses are balanced by excellent support for trends like the competition for prestige among the world’s universities.

International services administrators can profit from Wildavsky’s expert reporting, finding much useful information for developing their institutions’ international profiles. Advisors who work to send students overseas and to support them at home will find here an enlightening look at the larger context of their work. This book would also be helpful for institutional training around international affairs.

Wildavsky maintains that “ideas can’t be contained within national boundaries” (p. 189), and should not be, because global economic welfare will increasingly require that nations share each other’s ideas. He makes a compelling case that global endeavors in higher education are a major means through which ideas can be traded today, and that free movement of students, faculty, and institutions across national boundaries can build the human capital needed for prosperity.


The great brain race: How global universities are reshaping the world. (2010). Book by Ben Wildavsky. Review by Mark Rohland. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 248 pp. $26.95. ISBN # 978-0-691-14689-8
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