Few books have gripped the American imagination in recent years more than Thomas L. Friedman's The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (2005). His account of the impact of globalisation on the American economy may seem unexceptionable, even trite, to many non- Americans, but in the US it has propelled Friedman to near-guru status, even among the presidents of leading American universities.
Now Ben Wildavsky has applied Friedman's analysis to the world of higher education. He is well placed to do so. Wildavsky is a journalist by profession, formerly employed by US News & World Report, the compiler of the most widely read ranking of American universities. And he has used his contacts book to talk to a lot of people, both within the US and around the world, to examine trends in the emerging global higher education marketplace.
As befits the author's background, The Great Brain Race is a readable, fast-paced and generally accurate description - not so much of how global universities are changing the world, but of how the global race to attract the top talent among both staff and students is affecting the academy across the globe.
Wildavsky sets out his narrative with great clarity. He follows a conventional line of argument in explaining the dual role of universities in the globalising knowledge economy: they are responsible for both producing a significant proportion of that knowledge and providing the skilled individuals - students - who can make use of it. As governments around the world have accepted that the key to economic competitiveness is an educated, innovative and enterprising labour force, so has been ushered in a growing desire to establish "world-class" universities, expand the number of graduates, import overseas providers and drive up quality.
League tables (quaintly referred to as "a term used in Europe for sports rankings") have grown in significance as national virility symbols for the status of universities and have also begun to influence higher education policies in several countries.
Meanwhile, the private sector has moved in to soak up the unstoppable social demand for access to graduate-level qualifications.
As a description of the state of play on all these issues in the summer of 2009 (approximately), the book is wonderfully successful. So readers who have been living on another planet for the past 20 years could reliably start here. There are only a few minor glitches in the description (for example, a conflation of e-learning and distance learning and the complete absence of any mention of the Bologna Process in Europe), but overall it is delivered with great verve and clarity.
The book is not, however, without its flaws. Rather like Friedman's work, it is much stronger on description than analysis. Wildavsky's technique is to pile on case study after case study until the reader is convinced by the sheer quantity of the anecdote. This approach provides ample "colour", but runs the risk that the descriptions will date rapidly. The world is not only "flat", but it rotates. It moves on. And the breathless narrative cannot quite compensate for the lack of analysis.
This technique is, however, rhetorically effective. Both Friedman and Wildavsky self-consciously seek to issue a wake-up call to the wider American public, which, they believe, cannot take for granted American global economic domination (Friedman) nor higher educational supremacy (Wildavsky). So the narrative must first of all convince an American audience, which is regarded as unaware of, or complacent about, these issues. It appeals to a mild American paranoia of a perceived "threat" from overseas competition, especially Asia. Thus, what is seen as taken for granted outside the US is presented as novel and potentially hazardous to a more inward-looking American audience.
There is an underlying anxiety about the wider world weakening the grip of US universities on the global marketplace. Bearing in mind how much the country depends on attracting overseas talent to its universities to compensate for the mediocrity of its schools system, this anxiety is not entirely misplaced.
Where Wildavsky is more authoritative is, not surprisingly, his discussion of league tables - which is comprehensive, balanced and not uncritical. Alas, the book was written too early to take into account recent developments in Europe.
He is also insightful on the growth of the private for-profit sector, featuring (and I should declare an interest here) the University of Liverpool's global partner, Laureate Universities Inc. There is a balanced consideration of whether the profit motive is a threat to quality and a measured appraisal of the for-profits' role in the overall scheme of things.
This book is so readable that it will be perused by those who have little time to read books - ministers, political advisers, senior civil servants and even vice-chancellors. So it is important that it is read by all those in the wider academic community, too. In a post-election debate about the role and structure of higher education, many of the issues identified by Wildavsky will take centre stage. Complacency and mild paranoia are not unique to the US.
The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World
By Ben Wildavsky
Princeton University Press
Published 12 May 2010