When Claire Booyjzsen finished her master's degree at the University of Witwatersrand in her native South Africa, the world was her oyster. Intent on pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry, she consulted global university rankings, corresponded with professors and students to narrow down her list, and ultimately applied to 11 universities. After the acceptances came in, she traveled to Coventry, England, to become a doctoral student at the University of Warwick, where 1 in 5 students comes from overseas. "I've met people from all over the world," says Booyjzsen.
Booyjzsen is among the nearly 3 million students who now study outside their home countries, an increase of 57 percent in the past decade alone. The trend is growing among faculty, too: Three quarters of young economists in top U.S. universities earned their undergraduate degrees in another nation. As globalization comes to higher education, students and professors increasingly pick and choose universities like shoppers in a worldwide academic marketplace.
So far, the United States has been the biggest winner in this talent race. Two thirds of all international graduate students study in America's world-renowned universities. In fields such as engineering and computer science, more than 60 percent of Ph.D. students on U.S. campuses come from other countries. Indeed, a recent survey found that China's Tsinghua and Peking universities have surpassed the University of California–Berkeley as the biggest source of students who go on to earn American Ph.D.'s.
[Read more: Studying Abroad: A Cost-Effective Alternative]
Rivalry. But U.S. market share, while still very strong, has begun to erode as the intensely competitive world of global universities has led to fierce recruiting of foreign students and professors. From South Korea to Saudi Arabia, other nations are seeking top academic talent, setting up cross-border college campuses, and trying to create world-class universities of their own. The result: unprecedented opportunities for students to study and work wherever their abilities can take them. As students and academics become citizens of the world more than ever before, the kind of meritocracy that emerged in the United States when elite universities began talent-based admissions is beginning to take hold on a global scale.
For a student like Calcutta-born Vivek Upadhyay, the son of an engineer and a homemaker, this global meritocracy has opened up academic and job opportunities that were once unimaginable. After scoring 21st in the nation on the brutally competitive entrance exam for the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, he enrolled as a computer science major at IIT–Bombay and was soon exposed to brilliant classmates from all around India. Traveling overseas was "only a dream" growing up, he says, but he soon landed a summer internship at an elite Swiss research institute. The next summer, he took an internship in Hong Kong at UBS, the global financial services firm. He was offered a job there upon graduation, moved to Hong Kong, and after two years was given a new assignment in London.
In many ways, the experiences of Upadhyay, Booyjzsen, and countless others reflect the growth of an important new kind of free trade—free trade in minds. But just as other kinds of international trade often inspire a protectionist backlash, the academic and career mobility made possible by an increasingly borderless academic world has sometimes been controversial. The year Upadhyay graduated, the president of IIT–Bombay effectively banned students from taking overseas internships on the grounds that doing so would deprive India of valuable brainpower. Elsewhere, foreign students sometimes face enrollment limits and visa barriers. And Western nations that have long been magnets for the world's mobile students increasingly fret about the threat they perceive from the growing quantity and quality of universities in places like China.
These worries are badly misplaced, however. Yes, ideas are the new currency in a worldwide knowledge economy. But there is no reason to believe that gains for one nation mean losses for the rest. Globalization, as Yale President Richard Levin has written, "is a positive sum game in education, as it is in economics." Growing academic mobility will bring widespread benefits, both economic and educational. As vast numbers of globally mobile students can attest, letting students, faculty, and ideas move freely from country to country shows every sign of being good for individuals, for nations, and for the world.