The Great Brain Race by Ben Wildavsky


I read this some months ago but, inexplicably, failed to note the fact. Wildavsky is a clear, cogent and persuasive writer. He provides a good review of the global higher education picture and many of the key issues facing nations and universities.

There is, unsurprisingly, plenty of coverage of league table matters and he helpfully provides a handy, and surprisingly long, list of countries which have league tables. Noting the general biases in international tables he highlights a number of additional models – PISA, OECD, AHELO etc – as well as alternative subject-based approaches.

Further topicality comes from his damning indictment of visa restrictions and their consequences. Wildavsky mounts a welcome and powerful argument for free trade in ideas, scholars and HE and therefore against the constraint of movement of academic staff and students (as sadly we are experiencing in the UK at present). It’s a cogent and compelling line.

So, overall, a thoroughly readable and engaging text. My main criticism would be though that lots of this is rather US-oriented, and the NYU material and Sexton discussion is largely prospective. The author seems too willing to accept as yet unrealised institutional plans for international growth at face value rather than looking in detail at what some institutions, for example the University of Nottingham in China and Malaysia and other UK and Australian universities, have successfully achieved in Asia.

How Much Do Branch Campuses Really Matter?

So, do branch campuses really matter?

The Chronicle of Higher Education carries an interesting piece on branch campuses by Ben Wildavsky:

What should we make of the news this week that Michigan State is closing its Dubai campus? In my view, not too much. If one satellite campus’s demise meant that others were bound to fail, MSU would never have ventured into the United Arab Emirates in the first place. It is no secret that foreign branches don’t always work out. The boom in U.S. branch campuses in Japan in the 1980s ended in a whimper, with only Temple University’s outpost left standing. In the late 2000s, a branch of Australia’s University of New South Wales didn’t last past its first year in Singapore when enrollment projections didn’t pan out. Early last year, George Mason also abandoned its small campus in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah over disputes with its partner, the for-profit firm Edrak, over how soon the institution might reasonably be expected to turn a profit. And some branch campuses are stillborn; in 2005, the year before Nigel [Thrift] became vice chancellor, the University of Warwick abandoned its ambitious plans to create a satellite campus in Singapore amid faculty concerns over academic freedom and financial viability.

Yet other satellite campuses seem to be doing very well, thank you, from the University of Nottingham’s branch in Ningbo, China, to the assorted U.S. boutique elites, including Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, congregated on the edge of Doha in Qatar’s Education City….The bottom line: Branch campuses are at heart entrepreneurial ventures. Some will succeed, some will fail, and it will take time for universities to figure out which models, if any, are best replicated in which locations.

Many of these branch campuses are located in ‘education hubs’ (see previous post on this point), and enjoy substantial subsidies from ambitious governments. However, some campuses are different and, of course, I would argue that the University of Nottingham Ningbo China, rightly identified as successful above, and the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus represent something significantly different from the standard branch campus described here: they are integral elements of the University. So, in Nottingham’s case, even if not for others, these campuses really do matter.