Just a few decades ago,students at universities outside their home countries formed a tiny elite. Some gained scholarships with famous names like Rhodes or Fulbright; others were sent by governments,grooming them for top jobs in academia or public service. A few were born to cosmopolitan parents who searched for the best schooling money could buy.
That picture has changed. The 20th century saw a surge in higher education; in the early 21st century,the idea of going abroad to study has become thinkable for ordinary students. In 2006,the most recent year for which figures are available,nearly 3m were enrolled in higher education institutions outside their own countries,a rise of more than 50% since 2000.
One reason is the growth of the global corporation; ambitious youngsters sense that a spell studying abroad will impress multinational employers. But for school-leavers in the developing world,the poor teaching and lack of places at home are stronger factors. China,the biggest sending country,with around 200,000 students currently in higher education abroad,has university places for less than a fifth of its 100m college-age youngsters. In June 2008 around 10m sat the gao kao,the state university entrance exam. There were places for two-thirds of them. That is despite huge growth; the number of places has risen almost fivefold in as many years.
The general level of Chinas higher education remains low. In 1966 Mao Zedong closed the universities and scattered their teachers; when they re-opened they were short of cash,and a preference for rote learning still leaves many graduates ill-prepared. A 2006 study by McKinsey,a consultancy,found that of the countrys 1.6m young engineers only 10% were capable of working for multinational firms.
In the 1990s,China began pouring money into research at around 100 of its 1,800-odd higher-education institutions,hoping to create an elite tier of universities. But the country has yet to register on the global education scale: a ranking by Shanghai Jiao Tong University puts no Chinese institution in the worlds top 200 universities; Britains Times Higher Education magazine puts Peking University 50th and only six Chinese institutions in the top 200. For Chinese youngsters who can raise the cash,study abroad looks attractive.
Students travel to help themselves,but universities and host countries gain too. Around a fifth of university students in Australia were born abroad,and international education is the countrys third-biggest export after coal and iron ore. Foreign students who work in their spare time plug gaps in Australias labour markets.
But some ideas risk succeeding too well. Since 2001 foreign students in Australia have been able to apply for residence; so the marketers of that countrys campuses have been touting an enticing dealtake a vocational course in a field where Australia needs expertise; work while studying; then settle for good.
According to Fiona Buffinton,head of Australian Education International,a government agency,about a third of the countrys foreign students are motivated mainly by the hope of gaining residence,and a third primarily by the education on offer,while also nursing hopes of staying on. Only a third plan to go home after their studies. She fears that if Australia does too well at attracting students seeking a back door to immigration,its position in the global education marketand its attractiveness to really serious studentswill suffer.
Such worries are a reminder that in a global business,reputation is easily lost. In Britain,too,students from distant lands help to balance the universities books: fees for students from the European Union are capped at uneconomic rates. But a study by the Oxford-based Higher Education Policy Institute sounded a warning: Britains quickie masters degrees (doable in a year,and nice earners for colleges) are coming to be seen as substandard. Meanwhile,a survey of Chinese students in Britain found that many felt their institutions valued them only for their fees.
Ideally,sending countries can benefit as much as those who take students. Taiwan urges its students to leave,although with 164 universities for a nation of 23m,there is no clear need. We push them out,especially [doctoral students, says Ovid Tzeng,a government minister. Otherwise everyone works on the same problems.
A wise viewthough the benefits of exporting brains can be slow to materialise. Once again,Chinas history is instructive. In 1978,Deng Xiaoping decided to send 3,000 scientists to foreign universities each year for training. Even if 5% did not return,he said,the policy would be a success. In fact,only a quarter of the students who left China as a result ever returned.
So by 1990 China had a brain drain,and this prompted a row within the government,notes David Zweig,a Hong Kong-based scholar. Some wanted to make students return; others saw little point,since China lacked facilities to make use of the students training. Zhao Ziyang,the Communist Party chief,said it would be more far-sighted to store brain power overseas. His ideas prevailed: a new policy urged Chinese people living overseas to serve their nation from abroad as consultants,investors or scholars.
The dream of bringing well-trained Chinese minds home is having some success. Some of the cash earmarked for elite universities is being used to lure scholars back to the motherland. Both the Academy of Sciences and private donors such as Li Ka-shing,a Hong Kong-based billionaire,are dishing out money to make conditions attractive for returning Chinese scholars.
This sort of global contest for grey matter certainly makes for a bracing environment. By contrast,when universities mostly recruit locally,well-known campuses can coast along,knowing they have a brand that can hardly be challenged. In a global market,cross-border partnerships can alter the scene,and create entirely new brand names,in very unexpected ways.
Here too,China offers interesting case studies. Under a law passed in 2003,foreign universities were permitted to set up campuses,or whole universities,inside China,if they partnered with a local body. In the short period before the government called a halt to take stock,two British universities moved in. Nottingham University opened a campus in Zhejiang province,in 2005; the British institution recruits students and faculty,sets course content,conducts exams and confers degrees. A year later Liverpool University,in partnership with Xian Jiaotong,one of Chinas best colleges,opened a new university 100km (60 miles) from Shanghai. The first few cohorts will get degrees from Liverpool; the new university will soon award its own degrees. Neither British university put up any capital; what is at risk in such ventures is mostly reputation. Both universities,respected in England,but not world-famous,have decided that risk is worth taking in the hope of boosting their global profile.
Meanwhile,some campuses that already flourish in the global market want to go further. Spains IE business school ranks among the worlds top ten. It now plans to go into undergraduate educationand,in the words of Santiago Iniguez,rector of IEs new offshootto re-invent the university. All courses will have close ties with the hard school of real life. Would-be psychologists will see how organisations work; art students will learn how to run auctions; architects how to deliver on time and on budget. The ethos will be thoroughly global,with teaching in English and up to 80% of students from outside Spain.
Masao Homma,vice-chancellor of Ritsumeikan University in Japan,thinks an influx of foreign students could help his countrys campuses: in a homogeneous landwhich in his view is growing even more introvertsuch exchanges could expose Japans young to the wider world. Academics,too,could be changed by the new arrivals. Japans tenured faculty members are hardly challenged by home students; foreign ones could do the trick. In Britain,Mr Homma notes,a quarter of all students are over 25,while in his country the figure is only 2.7%. Japans timid young students rarely ask questions; outsiders might.
Like many of his counterparts in rich and not-so-rich countries,Mr Homma looks forward to a world where educational shoppers take a hard look at what is on offer in the global supermarket before settling for a home-made product.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2008