Higher education, and shifting the geopolitical balance of power

How countries and regions respond to dramatic economic circumstances can have significant longer term effects on the global balance of power. Two historical developments, for example, shaped the world’s political make-up for the later 20th century: the financial fall-0ut from the First World War, when US dollars moved in to bankroll some of the key European combatants, including Britain; and the Roosevelt administration’s New Deal response to the Great Depression. The Second World War, while significant in that its outcome temporarily side-lined Germany as a major power, merely reinforced what was already a fact in international relations, the supremacy of the United States. Furthermore, the decline of Britain in the 1940s and 1950s, and later the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, demonstrated that military muscle not supported by economic power was actually a handicap rather than a support, a point underscored also by the rise of Japan and (West) Germany in the 1960s.

The current recession, which may or may not be coming to an end in global markets, will probably also have a dramatic effect on the balance of power, and this time it is higher education that may be a key factor. In itself that is not new. The ability of the United States to consolidate its global economic dominance in the 1950s was hugely supported by major investment in higher education, and by the tendency of the US to attract and retain talented scientists and academics from across the world to add excellence to its universities. When we see the global university rankings, we see don’t just higher education excellence, we observe the world’s power structures.

The question now is whether those rankings will still look the same in 10 years time. Well, to save time let me say that they won’t. The position of Asian universities will have improved dramatically, as the key countries there are channelling big investments into their higher education systems right now. As the US Chronicle of Higher Education has observed, investment by countries like Singapore in new world class universities demonstrates a sense of driven purpose. But this is coming at a time when the major western countries in the North America and Europe talk the language of higher education development while simultaneously withdrawing the resources. The same article in the Chronicle warns that the University of California system, containing arguably the best cluster of public universities in the world, is now under serious threat due to funding cutbacks. In Europe the rankings show no sign that any national sector other than the British is on the rise – while the British sector itself is about to be hit hard by cuts. In Ireland, as we know, we are heading directly for the precipice, with no apparent recognition of the importance of a properly resourced higher education sector for our longer term economic prosperity.

I believe that the US will turn itself around and continue to drive global excellence in its higher education – certainly the Obama administration has recognised the urgent priority in this. But in Europe? And Ireland? I have significant doubts whether we have the understanding or the will to do this. And if we don’t, we are in a community of nations doomed to slip into the second tier and stay there. It’s not too late to correct this, but there isn’t much time, either.

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One Comment on “Higher education, and shifting the geopolitical balance of power”

  1. Donal_C Says:

    Europe has been in relative academic decline since the early 1900s when many of the brightest minds were forced to flee antisemitism. It’s amazing how many leading scientists from all disciplines have Ashkenazi backgrounds.

    True, we’ll see Asian universities rise in the rankings. However, the correlation between the number of ranked universities and a country’s intellectual capital is probably weak. The variance across Asian universities is higher than across their European counterparts. Most Asian countries have a small number of elite institutions, that receive the lion’s share of public and private funding. These will rise to the top. The vast majority of Asian universities remain poorly funded and probably will never appear anywhere near the top 1,000. Singapore is the exception, but the country only has three universities. In short, the best in Europe might lag behind the best in Asia, but the worst in Europe is ahead of the worst in Asia. (I have a masters degree from an Asian university so I have no interest to criticize Asian education.)

    However, I agree with your general line of thought. As I apply for my first faculty position, I’m not neglecting a priori any continent but I am focusing on the medium-term prospects. From this perspective, there are some attractive Asian schools whereas Ireland seems entirely unappealing at the moment… though perhaps that impression comes from reading this blog.


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