(Anti)Globalization and Higher Education

Exaggerations about the globalization of higher education seem to have led to complacency. In today's turbulent climate, it's more crucial than ever for business schools to pursue and promote globalization in their programs.

NOT LONG AGO, it was common to hear about a global marketplace for higher education in which student mobility had reached unprecedented levels and universities around the world competed for top-notch applicants without regard to the passports they carried. Ben Wildavsky, one of the chief cheerleaders of this  view, wrote in his 2012 book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World that “in the worlds of business and culture, the globalization trend is so well known as to be cliché. But a lesser-known phenomenon, the globalization of universities, is equally important and has perhaps even more far-reaching consequences.”

We contend that the real similarity between the globalization of higher education and the globalization of business is that both have been greatly exaggerated, not just by people who are pushing a particular agenda, but by the general population. In fact, only 2 percent of students enrolled in degree programs worldwide are at institutions outside their home countries. That’s lower than all but one of several dozen other measures of global depth outlined in The Laws of Globalization and Business Applications by Pankaj Ghemawat, a co-author of this article.

One of the perils of such overstatements is that they reduce our collective sense of how much room we have to boost the globalization of higher education. Such exaggerations also breed complacency at a time when political developments threaten to push the globalization of higher education into reverse gear.

To cut through some of the fog surrounding the globalization of higher education, we review why globalization is important, how it is currently being threatened, and what universities can do to reap more of its untapped potential.


The globalization of higher education has a wide array of obvious benefits for individuals, institutions, and nations. Let’s start at the individual level. By studying overseas, students can access courses for which domestic capacity is lacking or domestic quality is deficient. Such access is a significant consideration, especially when students come to advanced economies from emerging economies. Of the world’s top 200 universities, as listed by the 2016 Academic Ranking of World Universities, only 15 are based in emerging economies, and most of those are in China.

Moreover, the positive effects of undergraduate study abroad carry over into other areas besides education. The authors of the book How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence that Higher Education Works highlight these outcomes, noting that while study abroad has limited impact on students’ development in traditional academic areas, it has significant positive effects on their attitudes, values, and beliefs. Research has demonstrated these effects in areas such as students’ knowledge of world geography; their sense of cultural relativism and global interdependence; and their civic values, including the importance they attribute to influencing the political structure. Studies show that international experience makes students more willing to participate in environmental and community action programs; cross boundaries to move from familiar to unfamiliar; and personalize the lived experience of others. More recent literature also indicates improvements in their intercultural communication skills. And perhaps most broadly, they often develop a greater sense of socially responsible leadership.

While these benefits are generally intangible, they are essential in the environment we inhabit today. Furthermore, much of this literature focuses on relatively short-term study-away programs for U.S. students. It is reasonable to hypothesize that longer-term experiences studying overseas provide students with opportunities for even greater immersion in other cultures or contexts, through which they might acquire even more understanding of foreign environments.

Another point worth noting is that, at roughly 300,000, the number of U.S. students who study abroad is less than a third of the number of international students enrolled at U.S. schools (just over 1 million). That discrepancy means that U.S. students are more likely to have meaningful intercultural experiences at home, by virtue of knowing and studying alongside international students, than they are by studying internationally themselves.

These individual benefits have broader implications at the institutional level in three important ways. At a curricular level, international students can help fill advanced courses that otherwise would not achieve the enrollments required to justify offering them to domestic students. At the faculty level, international students often go on to become academics, further contributing to the vibrancy of academic institutions. And at a financial level, international students provide key economic support for a university’s activities, because most pay full tuition—in fact, according to the Institute of International Education’s 2016 Open Doors Report, only 17 percent of international students reported that their universities served as their primary source of funding.

Finally, we also see considerable benefits at the national level. Consider the United States as an example. At a time when the finances of the educational sector are under enormous pressure, international students directly and indirectly contributed US$32.8 billion to the U.S. economy and supported more than 400,000 jobs in the 2015–2016 school year, according to estimates by NAFSA: Association of International Educators. One-time foreign students have gone on to start companies that we have all heard of—such as Google, co-founded by Sergey Brin, and Tesla, founded by Elon Musk—and many that we haven’t. A study by NAFSA, featured in the July/August 2016 issue of its magazine International Educator, showed that 21 of the 87 privately held U.S. companies worth $1 billion or more had at least one founder who came to the U.S. as an international student.


Of course, not all foreign students stay in their host countries. Students who later return home help build ties between their home countries and the ones where they studied. Carol Atkinson at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles studied this effect in her 2010 paper, “Does Soft Power Matter? A Comparative Analysis of Student Exchange Programs 1980–2006.” She notes, “Research has consistently shown that exchange students return home with a more positive view of the country in which they studied and the people with whom they interacted. Frequently after returning home, they try to use the knowledge gained during their time abroad to improve the situation in their home country.”

It is for this reason that the U.S. government has long funded international exchanges such as the Fulbright Program. And indeed, many global leaders in business, government, and civil society are alumni of U.S. universities. Their influence extends to the highest levels of government around the world: the U.S. State Department lists nearly 300 current and former heads of state and government who studied in the U.S.


With more restrictive immigration policies on the horizon in many Western countries, we cannot assume that higher education will be spared. Thus, students are currently included in the U.K. government’s net immigration targets, although as of this writing a furious debate is underway within the government about their inclusion. And the U.S. executive order barring entrants from six countries—an order currently being challenged in court—sweeps up students in its fold, which prompted institutions such as New York University to file amicus curiae briefs in support of the challenges.

Even where the letter of immigration law does not (yet) preclude student inflows, two major problems arise. First, because studying overseas, particularly for a degree, involves a major commitment of time and resources, it is rational for prospective international students to worry about how relevant policies might change in response to a general rise in xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. Analytical models call attention to the large deterrent effect of such policy uncertainties on personal investment decisions.

Second, even in the absence of policy restrictions on students, the deterioration in the climate surrounding foreigners is likely to have a chilling effect on international student exchanges. History bears this out: In the closing days of his tenure as U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell expressed concern about the decline in the numbers of international students due to expanded visa procedures after the attacks on Washington and New York in September 2001. In spite of an effort to streamline the visa process, he conceded in a November 2004 speech to student journalists at the State Department: “One of the problems we’ve been having is to convince students around the world that we really want them to come here.”

More recently, the number of first year Indian students pursuing higher education in the U.K.—the second-largest receiving country in the world—has already dropped by more than one-half since 2010, according to UCAS, a U.K.- based nonprofit that guides college students as they pursue their degrees. This decrease has caused some discord between the U.K. and India: When British Prime Minister Theresa May made a state visit to India last fall, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi rebuffed her efforts to develop closer commercial ties between the two countries until the issue of student visas was addressed.

In a post-Brexit survey conducted by Hobsons, an educational consulting firm, almost a third of international students reported that they were less likely to come to the U.K. to study because of Brexit. This may be an even bigger problem for business schools: The Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) reports that among nearly 1,300 non-U.K. GMAT test takers, 45 percent said that Brexit has made them less likely to study in the U.K. And some declines already have been registered. UCAS figures show that the number of E.U. students applying to U.K. universities has dropped by 7 percent since the vote.

U.S. policies in the Donald Trump era are only starting to take shape, but there are clear reasons for concern. GMAC reports that two-thirds of the 86 U.S. MBA programs they surveyed this year received fewer international applications than last year. Furthermore, 43 percent of new non-U.S. registrants to mba.com (these are generally potential students, but registration is open to anyone) in April 2017 reported being less likely to study in the U.S. due to the results of the 2016 presidential election. One of the biggest red flags for potential students would be changes in their opportunities after graduation. A GMAC survey of 700 non-U.S. GMAT test takers who sent at least one score to a U.S. business school found that 67 percent “would reconsider their study destination if they are unable to obtain a work visa after completing their degree.”


What can institutions that support the globalization of higher education do to help themselves—and the world—reap the gains from it, despite the dismal policy climate that is emerging? At least four points are worth highlighting. We have organized them below under the acronym REAP.

RECOGNIZE the full potential of the globalization of higher education.

Especially at large universities in the U.S. and Europe, it is easy to get the impression that tertiary education is highly global, with students and faculty hailing from all corners of the earth. As noted above, this is far from accurate. Overall, only about 2 percent of the world’s students are international. While there is obviously some variation around that average, in most countries the number of those studying internationally is less than 5 percent of the number of students studying domestically. Institutions in the E.U. have made considerable efforts to standardize their degree programs for greater mobility, and even their numbers aren’t impressive. In fact, only in Luxembourg and Slovakia do the numbers of those studying internationally exceed 10 percent of the numbers of those studying domestically. (See Figure 1 below, which uses 2014 data from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics to disaggregate the global average by sending country.)

Note that China—the largest sending country by far, with 20 percent of the global share—sends only 2 percent of its students abroad. And in the largest receiving country, the U.S., inbound students account for less than 5 percent of total enrollment.

These relatively low numbers should be seen against the backdrop of an apparent decline in international amity. In the U.S., for example, the proposed budget President Trump submitted to Congress effectively de-emphasizes soft power approaches that rely on shared cultural and political values to maintain relationships between countries. These political trends should motivate higher education institutions to promote globalization more actively, rather than rest on a false belief that the globalization of their programs is more wide-ranging than it is.

Ratio of International to Domestic Enrollment 

(Anti)globalization map 1

Figure 1: This chart shows the home countries of all students enrolled in degree programs outside their countries of origin in 2014. Each country is sized in proportion to its number of outbound international students. The colors represent the intensity of such flows, and each country's students who are studying abroad is presented as a percentage of its domestic enrollment. (Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics)

EXPLOIT natural patterns. We have already made the point that higher education is subject to what Ghemawat has called the first law of globalization: the law of semiglobalization. That is, international interactions are far less frequent than domestic interactions. That said, the international flows that do take place show clear patterns that conform to what he calls the second law of globalization: the law of distance. That is, international interactions are dampened by distance along cultural, administrative, geographic, and economic dimensions. Or another way of putting it is that they are enhanced by proximity along those dimensions.

A simple econometric “gravity” model predicts that, when two countries share a common language, they are expected to exchange 2.9 times as many students as two countries with different languages. This makes intuitive sense since language is an essential factor in learning. Colonial ties are an even stronger predictor, with 3.7 times as much exchange implied between former colonies and their colonizers when compared to countries without such a historical link. And in terms of geography, countries that are half as distant exchange 2.1 times as many students. Even so, student flows seem to be less sensitive to geographic distance than other types of interactions between countries. The average student traveled 5,779 kilometers (3,590 miles) in 2014, compared to, for example, only 3,919 kilometers (2,435 miles) for the average immigrant.

U.S. Share of Exchange Partner's International Students

(Anti) Globalization Map 2

Figure 2: This chart shows the origins of all international students enrolled in degree programs in the United States in 2014. Note that the U.S. is not drawn to scale. (Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics)

How can universities exploit such global patterns? For one idea, consider Figure 2 above, which shows the origins of international students pursuing studies in the largest receiving country, the U.S. While the U.S. outperforms the model in terms of the number of students it attracts from some large Asian countries, it underperforms with respect to many other parts of the world. Even within Asia, there are large countries whose students are underrepresented in the U.S., such as the Philippines and Pakistan. This analysis of the effect of distance on international study might serve as a basis for universities, as they target the populations they wish to attract with their marketing efforts.

AUGMENT offerings. Especially in the current climate, it might not be enough for universities to promote their existing offerings to potential international students. They also might need to augment those offerings to counteract forces that deter students from enrolling in their programs.

One approach is to create curricular content that is less home-biased. For ideas on how to incorporate globalization-related themes into business school curricula, see AACSB International’s 2009 report, “Globalization of Management Education: Changing International Structures, Adaptive Strategies, and the Impact on Institutions,” especially chapter 4.

Another way that schools could augment their programs is by going beyond simply providing help with increasingly restrictive visa policies to actively promoting multiculturalism. As Mary Howard-Hamilton, Michael Cuyjet, and Diane Cooper put it their 2011 book Multiculturalism on Campus, “Multicultural competence extends beyond the student affairs staff, and it is the responsibility of the whole institution to challenge faculty to learn how to apply this cultural competence in the classroom and to engage students in shifting their views about themselves and others.” And, of course, institutions can use technology and, in some cases, even branch campuses overseas to reach out to students beyond the confines of national borders.

PUSH for better policies. Given the shadow that today’s policy climate casts over the landscape of higher education, it is essential for colleges and universities to engage with policymakers—perhaps now more than ever. The terrain might seem unpromising: So-called elites are under attack from all sides of the political spectrum, with President Trump on record as saying that he loves the poorly educated. Given such anti-intellectualism, emphasizing the economic benefits of international education may be helpful. As the title of a March article appearing on the news site Quartz put it, “Trump doesn’t realize that America’s greatest export is higher education.”

Beyond emphasizing the benefits of globalization, both economic and noneconomic, universities can recognize the full range of instruments available for influencing policy at a variety of governmental levels and branches. These include methods such as official testimony, lobbying, political contributions, advocacy advertising, litigation, and, of course, collective action. To some, this list might seem excessive, but just remember how high the stakes are!


To end on a potentially more hopeful note: While the number of students coming to the U.S. from the Middle East and North Africa declined following the terrorist attacks of 2001, their enrollment has grown rapidly since 2005. Today, the number of students from this region has more than quadrupled, and they make up twice the share of U.S. international students than they did in 2000. So clearly, a rebound is possible.

The fundamental strengths of higher education in the U.S. and other advanced economies that are among the largest host countries, as well as the benefits of international education, have not withered away. So the anti-globalization movement need not signal the end of decades of progress.

This is by no means the first time that academia has faced off against politics and populism. There have often been setbacks, and there will always be barriers, but the will to learn and advance knowledge is a powerful force.

Pankaj Ghemawat is Global Professor of Management and Strategy and director of the Center for the Globalization of Education and Management at New York University’s Stern School of Business in New York City. He also is the Anselmo Rubiralta Professor of Global Strategy at IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain. Phillip Bastian is an associate research scholar at the Center for Globalization of Education and Management at the Stern School of Business.