2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Psychologist; President, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
Professor of Psychology, Provost, Senior Vice President, Tufts University

The Globalization Of Higher Education

Having just returned from a visit to universities in India with which Tufts has partnerships, I am optimistic about the future of higher education, in part because it is becoming more global.

National borders can no longer contain the most serious problems the world faces, be they economic, environmental, health-related, or political. Through education and research, universities play key roles in addressing these problems.

In order to take on these challenges, people must understand the world beyond their respective nations. This requires that universities provide curricular and travel opportunities to learn about other countries. It also requires that universities recruit a critical mass of students from abroad; the presence of international students contributes to the international education of all students, because learning from peers is as important as learning from a formal curriculum.

I am optimistic that colleges and universities around the world will take these challenges seriously and respond in enterprising ways to optimize the world's intellectual capital.

The U.S. is at the short end of a global knowledge asymmetry: on average, college students in the U.S. have less knowledge about other nations and cultures than their counterparts have about the U.S. Our colleges and universities are acting to compensate for this asymmetry by strengthening curricular offerings and active learning experiences that are internationally focused.

Amidst the discussion of the recent report of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, little attention has been paid to the report's call for "greater emphasis on international education". The report correctly points out that "the need to produce a globally literate citizenry is critical to the nation's continued success in the global economy". However, higher education should equip us not only to seize the economic opportunities afforded by globalization, but also to navigate an increasingly interconnected, crowded and dangerous world. We fail to understand other cultures at our peril.

In partial recognition of this, earlier this year the Bush Administration launched the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) to "dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical need language skills", focusing on Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi and other central Asian languages. While NSLI is a welcome initiative, the funding is exclusively for language instruction. Yet the ability to engage beyond national boundaries also requires cultural fluency. Cultural fluency involves knowledge of history, politics, religion, literature and the arts. It involves knowledge of gesture, nuance and context necessary to avoid misunderstanding. Fortunately, although the vision of NSLI is restricted to languages, colleges and universities are already creating more expansive programs for international learning.

For any nation, recruiting students from overseas evokes mixed feelings. As we seek to advance the globalization of higher education, we must dispel two myths about the influx of international students.

One is the brain drain myth, according to which the countries of origin are being robbed of talent. Take the case of the large numbers of graduate students recruited from India over the past three or so decades—mostly in science and engineering. The dire warnings about a brain drain have proven false. These expatriate Indians have helped fuel India's emerging economy by leveraging their American training and global experience. This group also has formed a bridge between India and the U.S. that is providing the two countries with new economic opportunities as well as a stable political relationship. We are all better off when talent is realized to its fullest—even if it crosses borders.

The global matching of talent with opportunity is not limited to science and Engineering. The great American conservatories of music are filled with students of Japanese, Chinese and Korean descent, as are the stages of our concert halls.

A second myth about the movement of students across borders is that the host country bears a net cost. If we continue with the example of American universities recruiting Indian graduate students in science and engineering, the truth is that the host nation is getting a bargain. Arguably the most selective science talent search in the world is the entrance examination for the undergraduate programs at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). American graduate programs in science and engineering—as well as American industry—have long relied on this selection process and have skimmed off the top of the IIT graduating classes in order to meet the U.S. economy's demand for scientists and engineers. The IIT is funded by the Indian government, so we in the U.S. are cashing in on scientific talent selected and trained at the expense of the Indian taxpayer, who in turn gets a return on this investment as mentioned above.

A similar story can be told about medical education. In some of the best private medical schools in India, medical education is subsidized by clinical revenue (from patients). Graduates from these programs (recruited to the U.S. to meet a growing demand for doctors, post-docs in the life sciences, and other health professionals) have had their training subsidized by healthcare consumers in India.

In an interesting twist on globalization, some Indians are going to China to study medicine because of the shortage of medical school seats in India. Medical education (particularly clinical training) in the U.S. is becoming prohibitively expensive—for students, medical schools and teaching hospitals—even as the demand for doctors and other healthcare professionals soars. Countries like India and China, with large numbers of patients and rapid growth in the hospital sector, are likely to become destinations for clinical training.

The American-born children of the Indian students who were recruited to graduate programs in the first wave several decades ago are now represented disproportionately in the student bodies of the top American colleges and universities. Experienced at negotiating between two cultures, this generation is contributing to the internationalization of the educational experience on campus. From Bollywood music to Bhangra dancing, our campuses are becoming incubators of cross-cultural knowledge.

Knowledge knows no national borders, and learning shouldn't either. Institutions of higher learning are taking the lead in reaching across nations to prepare global citizens and leaders for a world in which cultures are more interwoven than ever before.