Free Trade in Minds: Building the New Global Education Marketplace

You’ve all heard about the natural experiments that occur when identical twins are separated at birth and raised in different homes. We can learn a lot about nature versus nurture when we see the impact of very different environments on similar individuals. It so happens that in the world of global higher education, we have a natural experiment that perfectly illustrates the contrasting approaches leaders can take as they try to build great universities. Nearly 60 years ago, after independence from Great Britain, the University of Malaya and the University of Singapore started out as two branches of the same institution. But despite their very similar cultural and colonial roots, the different paths taken by these two universities provide something very similar to an identical twin study – and a striking cautionary tale.

The University of Malaya instituted admissions quotas that favored ethnic Malays and kept out a lot of ethnically Chinese students, whose numbers dropped from 56 percent to 29 percent from the early 1970s to the late 1980s. It restricted enrollment of foreign students to just 5 percent. And it used a very rigid civil service hiring system that made it extremely hard to attract top faculty, especially from foreign countries.

Meantime, the institution that later became the National University of Singapore embraced a market-oriented approach: it cultivated a culture of meritocracy in its hiring and admissions decisions and recruited prominent researchers and professors from around the world. It also made a special effort to boost the university’s human capital by bringing in foreign students and subsidizing their studies.

So what was the result of this experiment? I think you all know the answer, which Jamil Salmi highlighted in his excellent book on world-class universities: NUS has become a major global powerhouse, while the University of Malaya, in Salmi’s words, “struggles as a second-tier research university.”

Being here at Duke Kunshan at the launch of this tremendous new undergraduate degree program is a wonderful opportunity to think together about what it means to create a thriving global institution in 2018. Where is higher education headed in a new era of technological changes and economic realignment? How does it need to adjust? And what do institutions like Duke Kunshan need to do to keep up and rise to the top?

DKU Class of 2022 logo It’s a particular privilege for me personally to be asked to participate in today’s forum in the presence of such distinguished leaders from Duke Kunshan, like Chancellor Liu Jingnan and Executive Vice Chancellor Denis Simon; from Duke, especially Provost Sally Kornbluth; from Wuhan University; from NYU-Shanghai; and including friends and colleagues like Mike Schoenfeld, Noah Pickus, and Dick Brodhead. When I started college in 1982, Professor Brodhead was already known at Yale as an English professor you absolutely had to take. Unfortunately for 17-year-old me, I couldn’t get into his section of English 129. But after waiting 36 years and traveling halfway around the world, now that he is honorary chancellor of Duke Kunshan I’m very happy to have the opportunity to see him today and I’m looking forward to hearing his remarks at the convocation this afternoon.

Today I’m going to talk about three themes in global higher education.

Each tells us about the kinds of innovations universities need to thrive in the new global higher education marketplace – to take the path of NUS rather than the University of Malaya.

Each tells us how universities, by succeeding in this marketplace, by giving students a meaningful education, can facilitate something audacious in human history: a world in which knowledge is power; a world in which people can get ahead based on what they know and not where they’re from.

In short, each tells us how we can move toward a world characterized by what I call free trade in minds.

  • The first theme is about mobility. Specifically, mobility in our changing global academic marketplace.
  • The second theme is about access. Specifically, who has access to the great universities of the world, and about the moral imperative of ensuring that all qualified students can participate in a knowledge-based economy where human capital matters more than ever.
  • The third theme is about the liberal arts. Specifically, how the growing popularity of liberal arts in Asia reflects our evolving understanding of the habits of mind that students need not only to succeed economically but to be truly educated.



Let’s begin with theme 1: mobility.

In a sense this has been a characteristic of global higher education since the origins of Western universities in the Middle Ages, when wandering scholars moved around to study at the new universities that had been created in places like Paris, Oxford, and Bologna. But today’s mobility is occurring on a vastly greater scale. In 1985, according to the OECD, there were just over 1 million foreign students enrolled in universities worldwide. 20 years later, that number had tripled, to 3 million. Today it stands at nearly 5 million. And although the growth rate has slowed, the OECD projects that there will be 8 million globally mobile students by 2025.

Faculty are increasingly mobile, too, as you can tell just by looking around you.

And this is also an obvious place to point out that we’re seeing the mobility of campuses themselves. There’s been huge growth of branch campuses, typically established by Western universities in Asia and the Middle East. There are now around 250 of these campuses, taking many shapes and forms, from Education City in Qatar, which houses outposts of Georgetown, Texas A&M, and others, to Duke-NUS medical school in Singapore.

Mobility is everywhere aided by technology, which removes barriers of time and place to let students take classes at a vastly greater range of universities around the world than they could otherwise attend.

The same is true of researchers, who through a combination of physical travel and technology can now collaborate more than ever before with their counterparts in other countries and other universities.

Mobility of students, of faculty, of researchers, and of campuses, together with omnipresent technology, has created a marketplace for talent and ideas like nothing we have seen before. And that has gone hand in hand with a race to create world-class universities that can compete with the best in research quality, productivity, and educational excellence. Around the world, from China and South Korea to Saudi Arabia, higher education decision makers are spending more money, recruiting across borders, and creating international partnerships in an effort to create universities as good as the best in the West.



As mobility increases in all these dimensions, there’s one more noteworthy development: in a global academic marketplace, markets in ideas, like markets in business, need information in order to function. So it may be no surprise that rankings emerged to help students, university leaders, and policymakers keep track of which institutions are at the top of the international pecking order.

The earliest rankings began in the late 19th century – there’s a wonderful ranking from 1895 that compared the physical fitness of students at UC Berkeley to their counterparts at several East Coast colleges. But rankings didn’t become a truly mass phenomenon until almost a century later when my former employer launched the U.S. News & World Report rankings in 1983. These made it possible for a student in Delaware to compare two schools in California and Michigan. And the idea soon spread to dozens of individual countries, from Italy to Peru to Kazakhstan.

Then another big development took place not far from here when Shanghai Jiao Tong University launched its global university rankings 15 years ago, followed one year later by Times Higher Education. So that means students in Singapore can compare chemical engineering programs in Paris and Saudi Arabia – and policymakers and university leaders can keep tabs on where their institutions stand as well.

I probably don’t need to tell you that rankings have been frequently criticized – something I experienced up close and personal during my time at U.S. News. Critics say they’re arbitrary and that they create perverse incentives for universities to focus on the wrong things rather than truly improving their effectiveness.

But while it’s true that rankings have many flaws, we shouldn’t lose sight of the value of creating an external yardstick that allows us to compare universities, spur competition, and ultimately help universities improve. We’re in the age of transparency and accountability in higher education, and rankings are here to stay. Just because you can’t measure everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t measure anything. So the challenge will be to improve rankings.

We’re already seen rankers like U.S. News and Times Higher adjust their methodologies, and publications like the Washington Monthly have come up with alternative rankings focusing on things like the contributions of universities to public service. Now the real Holy Grail, which many are seeking, is coming up with better measures not just of research, not just of future earnings, but of how much students actually learn while they’re in college. Once we can do that consistently and effectively, we’ll have made a huge breakthrough, and rankings may help us get there.


Anxiety and benefits

The mobility I’ve described has tremendous benefits, but it has also given risen to a good deal of anxiety, and even what I call academic protectionism.

For many years, there have been fears of brain drain in the developing world as young people leave to study in the West – and sometimes stay. Conversely, in the West there are worries that talented foreigners will crowd out domestic students, and also workers. So in periods of resurgent economic nationalism in certain countries – both the reality and the perception – it’s probably no surprise that foreign student numbers have dropped or flattened.

In the United States, we remain the world top destination for international students, but the number of new international student enrollments declined in 2017 for the first time in six years. Meantime, the United Kingdom is slipping from 2nd to 3rd place as a global destination for international students, according to a new analysis from the Centre for Global Higher Education. This comes after 5 years in which the government held down the growth of international students by limiting new students and post-study work visas. With the advent of Brexit and the end of free movement for EU students, European students will have to pay full international fees and sharp declines in international student numbers are likely.

Let me explain why I think a lot of this anxiety about academic mobility is misplaced. Let’s start with brain drain. An important thing to keep in mind, particularly in the developing world, is that the pool of talent is not finite. There was a great article in Foreign Policy a while back which pointed out that the Philippines, which sends more nurses oversees than any other developing nation still has more nurses per capita than a country like Great Britain. That’s because expanded opportunities for educated young people will create incentives for more people to pursue degrees, and to develop the skills that will lead to success, whether at home or abroad.

As for crowding out of domestic students, there’s not much evidence of that. One study found that in key periods when foreign PhD enrollment has grown at US universities, departments have often expanded and domestic enrollment hasn’t suffered. And the Chronicle of Higher Education analyzed international enrollment at 68 state flagship universities and found that even with a 155 percent increase in foreign student numbers over six years, domestic enrollment actually edged up.

Another way of thinking about these concerns about mobility is to keep in mind that increasing knowledge is not a zero-sum game. It isn’t a finite resource like gold or diamonds – it’s something that can grow.

So when we hear people express the fear, especially in the West, that as other nations improve their universities we will somehow lose our edge – that we won’t be number one anymore, we should take a deep breath. That’s the wrong way to look at the global marketplace.

A UNESCO study a few years ago found that the U.S. share of the world’s scientific publications declined more than any other countries from 2002 to 2008. Meantime, China’s market share more than doubled. That sounds pretty bad for the U.S., right? But in fact the overall number of scientific publications grew so much – by more than a third – that American researchers had actually published 46,000 more articles than they did six years earlier.  In other words, the research pie got bigger.

So increasing knowledge is NOT a zero-sum game. What’s more, knowledge IS a public good – it can’t be contained in one country. That’s great, because it means research advances in one nation can be used by academics and innovators around the world.

Here’s a great example from the author Amar Bhidé, in his book The Venturesome Economy: “A Briton invented the protocols of the World Wide Web – in a lab in Switzerland. A Swede and a Dane in Tallinn, Estonia, started Skype… How did the foreign origins of these innovations hurt the U.S. economy?”

So once again, the big takeaway from the MOBILITY that characterizes the global academic marketplace is that we need to avoid zero-sum thinking because the world needs more well-trained minds, whatever their nationality, to tackle big problems in science, technology, public policy, and more.



Now let’s move to theme number 2: access. In a global marketplace characterized by free movement of people and ideas, students should be able to attend the best universities anywhere in the world. And universities should BE ABLE TO ENROLL the best minds from across the globe. But to have truly free trade in minds, we also have to define ACCESS economically, to be sure not to miss talent in our midst from every rung on the economic ladder.

This point is very personal for me because my own family’s story is one of millions that are emblematic of the role of education as a force for social mobility. My father’s parents were immigrants to the United States; his father left school in the old country around 13 or 14; they never had much money. But despite being a mediocre student in high school, my dad somehow squeezed into Brooklyn College, where he blossomed. He went on to get a PhD and spent most of his life as a professor at Berkeley.

If we don’t find mechanisms to ensure that students from all walks of life have access to quality institutions, we’ll not only be guilty of what I consider a moral failing – we’ll be working against our national intellectual and economic interests. We’ll be letting talent go to waste.

In the United States, where we have many world-class institutions, dominate the global rankings, and produce a disproportionately high share of the world’s research discoveries, there has been growing concern in recent years that not everyone has an equal shot of getting access to these universities – particularly talented students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some of the most exciting and influential research in this area comes from a team led by a brilliant young economist at Stanford, Raj Chetty. Last year, with his collaborator John Friedman at Brown, Chetty released a study based on college attendance and tax return data for more than 30 million college students. They created what they call Mobility Report Cards for every college. These are designed to show for a given school not just how successful graduates are overall, but how many students from lower-income family backgrounds move toward the top of the income distribution, as measured by their earnings about 10 years after graduation.

The good news is that at highly selective colleges, students from low-income families do almost as well as more affluent students in terms of future earnings.

But there are very few poor students at highly selective schools. Some of you may have heard these figures, but I think it’s worth repeating them. The Chetty study found that at the Ivy-Plus Colleges – the 8 Ivy League colleges, the University of Chicago, Stanford, MIT, and Duke – there are more students from the top 1 percent of the income distribution (14.5 percent) than from the bottom half of the income distribution (13.5%). Another statistic from this research: “Children whose parents are in the top 1% of the income distribution are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than those whose parents are in the bottom income quintile.” So the low income students at those schools do well, but there just aren’t very many of them.

Interestingly, the big winners in the Chetty study are schools like CUNY (the City University of New York) and the California State University campuses, which enroll a lot of low-income students and succeed in propelling a good number from the bottom quintile to the top.

But what is happening at the elites? The journalist Derek Thompson captures the problem of missed opportunity very nicely: “When it comes to income mobility,” he writes in the Atlantic. “America’s most prestigious schools are like factories working at half capacity. They have the potential to transform the lives of thousands, thanks to their resources, peers, teachers, and alumni networks. But they aren’t taking in more low-income students.”

So the big question is – why? One possibility is that there are just too few low-income students who are qualified to attend the most selective colleges. That doesn’t appear to be true. A study by Caroline Hoxby and Chris Avery found that many low-income students had the grades and test scores to succeed at the 238 most selective colleges in the country – but they never applied.

 A key barrier to access seems to be lack of information – both for students and for colleges.

Hoxby conducted a study with another researcher, Sarah Turner of UVA, in which they sent out 40,000 information packets to randomly assigned high-achieving, low-income students, explaining things like admissions standards, graduation rates, and financial aid policies. The results were really striking – compared to a control group, when given the right information these high-achieving students were much more likely to be admitted to a college that matched their academic qualifications.

Since then, the College Board has been doing a lot to build on this effort. It’s trying to make sure that talent is not wasted by giving high school students more information to create a good college match. So it sends out customized mailings to high school seniors with information about potential colleges and the application process. And it’s trying out new things like sending students texts with college information, or offering low-income students a free virtual advising program. It wants to see how much more it can do to help students find, attend, and graduate from colleges that are the best fit by providing more information, at the right time, in the right form.

There are also some important initiatives addressing the flip side of the equation – providing better information to colleges rather than students. The College Board is also piloting a really interesting new admissions tool that is designed to help colleges put standardized tests – as well as grades – in the context of any obstacles a student may have faced. It’s called the Environmental Context Dashboard, and it builds on recent research that shows low-income students are more likely to get into selective colleges when those schools receive a lot of information about the applicant’s high school.

So the Environmental Context Dashboard shows an applicant’s SAT scores in the context of the scores of other students at the same school, how many go to college, and how many receive free or reduced cost lunch. It does the same for Advanced Placement scores, and it rolls in neighborhood and family measures like crime rates, educational attainment, and median family income. The idea is to give admissions officers a picture of student achievement in context.

College Board researchers are busy testing this tool, and so far they’re finding that when admissions officers have this kind of information, they recommend more students from disadvantaged backgrounds for admission, especially when they get applications from schools or neighborhoods they’re not familiar with.

So we know that closing the information gap is one important step toward making sure talent isn’t left behind. Another, of course, is for institutions to understand that providing access is part of being great. One of the things that particularly impressed me as I started to learn about Duke Kunshan University is the commitment you have made to student financial aid. You’re making sure, to put it bluntly, that Duke Kunshan is not just a university for rich kids.


Liberal Arts

I’ve talked about the urgent need for colleges and universities around the world to continue their move toward free trade in minds. That means sustaining and building MOBILITY in the global education marketplace to allow the freest possible movement of people and ideas around the world.

And I’ve also argued that free trade in minds has to mean maximizing access for talented students from all rungs on the economic ladder.

But I haven’t really talked about what kind of education all those students should be receiving. That’s theme number 3. I’m going to briefly make the case that the liberal arts, with their emphasis on critical thinking, creative thinking, and diverse curricula are exactly what undergraduates need to be studying to thrive in our changing world.

Paradoxically, recently we’ve seen something of a retreat from the liberal arts in the United States at a time of growing concern over practicality and financial return on investment for a college education. The proportion of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the humanities is down to just 6 percent, down from a high of 17 percent in 1968. Meantime, business is the most popular undergraduate major, making up about 20 percent of bachelor’s degree awarded each year when you include subfields like finance, marketing, accounting, and management.

But in a growing number of universities in Asia, it’s a different story. There’s more and more interest in moving away from rote learning, test obsession, and the narrow career focus that still characterize education in many Asian countries. Policymakers and educational leaders want to expose students to more subjects, to foster intellectual curiosity, to encourage creative thinking – and in doing so to build a workforce of rigorous, creative thinkers who can meet the needs of a fast-changing global economy.

According to the Global Liberal Education inventory, there are now 183 non-US liberal education programs. Almost 60 percent were started in the past 25 years. And the largest percentage – 37 percent — are in Asia.

There is no single definition of these programs. In the US you have a few pure Great Books colleges like St. John’s College, where everyone studies the same classical curriculum; you have Great Books programs at schools like Columbia or Chicago where all students must take certain core classes in addition to whatever else they study; and you have many colleges where students have distribution requirements across several fields of study.

Similarly, in Asia there are lots of variations. In Hong Kong, which has integrated liberal arts into all its undergraduate programs at public universities, I found out when I visited a few years ago that students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong study thinkers like Aristotle as part of a mandatory core curriculum, whereas at the University of Hong Kong there’s a broader set of options and students can take classes like one I attended on “The Press, the Public, and the Public Sphere.”

Beyond Hong Kong, a very partial list of liberal arts program would include Fudan University in Shanghai, Seoul National University, and Japan’s Waseda University. And in addition there are the new partnerships between Asian and Western Institutions, including Yale-NUS, NYU-Shanghai, and of course Duke Kunshan, which is creating an East-West liberal arts fusion curriculum, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary study and pulling from the best of each tradition.

I think it’s fair to say that the exact form education will take at these institutions continues to be a work in progress. But what’s clear is that whatever their specific curriculum requirements, they want to foster habits of mind that involve critical engagement with ideas and, above all, truth-seeking, which is after all the fundamental mission of universities.

Now, you might say of course this guy is going to argue in favor of the liberal arts – his bio says he was a comparative literature major! But let’s not forget, as I have certainly been guilty of doing in the past, that sciences are also part of the liberal arts. My 20-year-old son is studying physics at a small liberal arts college, one of the distinctive institutions that make up an important contribution of the United States to higher education. So in addition to studying atomic physics and all kinds of advanced mathematics I don’t pretend to understand, he’s also had the opportunity to study Classical Greek archeology, to learn about the history of modern India, and to take a seminar on Don Quixote in Spanish.

In spite of all this, I have to admit my science-loving father in law, a retired doctor, was a bit skeptical about whether his grandson would really get the kind of rigorous scientific education that he needed in this environment. So I sent him an article by Thomas Cech, a Nobel-prize winner in chemistry, which found that on a per capita basis, undergraduates at top liberal arts colleges are more likely than their peers at research universities to go on to earn PhDs in the sciences. So liberal arts is not just about the humanities.

It seems to me self-evident that seeking the truth and learning to think rigorously and creatively is its own reward. But it’s pretty easy to find evidence that this kind of education can also lead to economic success. Here in China, a well-known advocate against narrow, professionally focused education is Jack Ma, who earned a B.A. in English from Hangzhou Normal University and went on to become co-founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, and one of the richest people in China. A few years ago he was featured in Time magazine in an article with this wonderful title: “10 CEOs Who Prove Your Liberal Arts Degree Isn’t Worthless.”

Making the move to liberal arts education isn’t necessarily easy. Among other things, it will require new attention to how faculty teach, which was one of the recommendations of a report last year from Duke Kunshan and the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. “We know from empirical research” the authors wrote, “that learning by rote listening and memorization without interpretation or critical evaluation, still a common practice in Chinese universities, is inadequate for developing critical thinkers and critical problem-solvers.” So this is a blunt reminder that liberal arts earning is not just about curriculum – it’s fundamentally about pedagogy.

I’m going to conclude with a small anecdote that I think tells us something important about the world we’re trying to move toward, about the possibilities opened by mobility in a changing global education marketplace, by access across the economic spectrum, and by equipping students with the liberal arts skills they need to thrive in this changing world.

When I was visiting the University of Wisconsin at Madison to give a talk, I picked up a campus publication and read an interview with a Chinese undergraduate, a computer science major named Mandy Chan. They asked her whether she planned to return home after graduation. She said that was a possibility. But the quote that really grabbed me is this: she said “Wherever there is an opportunity is where I will be.” That really sums this up. It’s an exciting time, and I’m looking forward to hearing this distinguished group’s ideas about where we’re going next.