Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Book Review: The Great Brain Race

Ben Wildavsky's book 'The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World' is well worth reading. Wildavsky places international education firmly in the context of globalisation. He makes the case for international education as free trade in minds and ideas and as a key piller of globalisation. In the long run, it's more important and more beneficial than the free movement of goods and money that have been the icons of globalisation so far.

The early chapters, looking at the growth of overseas satellite campusus felt a little weak to me. It's largely a story of elite institutions leveraging their powerful brands to draw in the elites of the developing world. It felt like a tale of the top tenth of a percent, globalised institutions training the next generation of Davos Man, which isn't something that I find all that relevant to the longer term future of the sector as a whole. Counterpointing the western institutions reaching out are new institutions rising in "emerging markets". Some, like Saudi Arabias KAUST, seem like towers of gold build on sand. Others, in India and China, have emerged to be real competitors to the first world institutions they in part emulate.

I found the book really found it's stride in the chapter on for profit tertiary education. Much of what is written about the for profit field is either by conventional academics, who are, on principle against it, or business writers, who are equally for it. It's rare to read a more nuanced view. Wildavsky doesn't shy from the critiques of the industry, quality and so on, but makes a strong argument that for profit higher education is filling a gap for people who cannot otherwise access conventional higher education. This is especially the case in places like Mexico, where the higher education system simply can't accommodate the demand. It's also potentially true anywhere the demand for tertiary education exceeds supply. Any academic in a non profit University who isn't seriously concerned about the growth of for profit tertiary education doesn't grasp it's implications, or perhaps is in a field where they can make the jump when the time comes.

My only gripe with the book is the style. In common with many journalists who go on to write full length book's the story is told with a shock and awe bombardment of quote, statistic and anecdote, rather than by boots on the ground narration. Every opinion seemed to be someone else's, and the the clear narrative of the authors own voice and views was hidden until the end. It seems to be a journalism thing, they are locked into the model of reportage rather than storytelling, painting the picture with little dots of fact rather than the impressionistic brush of a more narrative storyteller or a big thinker like Clay Shirky or Neil Postman. The book feels like a collection of in depth feature articles, rather than a coherent book. Nevertheless, they are good feature articles, so it's more of a personal pet peeve than a deep flaw. While I think it could have been a much better book, it's still well worth reading if you, or your institution is really thinking about dabbling your toes into the world of international education.

If you don't fancy buying the book, there's good video material from the author online at the book website and on the facebook page. There's also audio of his talk at the LSE online and on iTunesU.

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