Saturday, 21 July 2007

Globalization in science education

*Since writing this piece my understanding has changed and I now believe it contains fundamental flaws. Anyone who would like further clarification is welcome to e-mail me at hklaxnessat-*


Globalization in science education: An inevitable and beneficial trend

Bruce G. Charlton

Medical Hypotheses. 2006; 66: 869-873


Globalization is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of modernization, which describes societies characterized by progressive growth in the complexity of communications. Despite its inevitable problems, globalization is a generally desirable phenomenon, since it enables increased efficiency, effectiveness and capability of societies and thereby, potentially benefits most people most of the time. Scientific research was one of the first global communication systems, especially at its most advanced levels. And high quality scientific education at the post-doctoral level is also now essentially global. The next steps will be for lower level science education – at doctoral, undergraduate, and even school teaching levels – to become progressively globalized. This phenomenon is already happening in the mathematical and quantitative sciences, and will probably spread to include other kinds of science. But to be efficient requires the development of a trading medium of internationally standardized and quantitative educational credits – for instance, standard certificates, objective comparative examinations, and a hierarchical qualifications structure (which will almost certainly be based on the United States system). Globalized education also requires a common language for organizational communications, which is already in place for the quantitative and mathematical sciences, and will be increasingly the case as competence in a simplified form of international scientific English becomes more universal. As such a global science education system grows there will be increased competition and migration of teachers and students. The law of comparative advantage suggests that such mobility will encourage societies to specialize in what they do best. For example, some countries (even among wealthy nations) may provide little advanced scientific education, and import the necessary expertise from abroad – this situation seems to be developing in Germany and France, who lack any top-quality research universities. Conversely, just a few countries may provide the bulk of advanced science education teaching - as well as applied and pure research personnel – for the rest of the world: potentially China and India might supply most of world’s mathematical expertise. In conclusion, there are two complementary aspects to the globalization of science education: these are standardization and specialization. We anticipate a simultaneous trend towards international convergence of basic educational structures, certificates and English usage; with increasing national differentiation of specialist educational functions.



Globalization is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of modernization, which describes societies characterized by progressive growth in the complexity of communications [1] and [2]. Globalization refers specifically to the increasing dominance of an international network of communications – especially in the economy, but also in social systems such politics, the mass media, and science and technology.

Globalization, despite its inevitable problems, is a generally desirable phenomenon, since it enables increased efficiency, effectiveness and capability of societies and thereby potentially benefits most people most of the time [3]. Also, the fact that modernization tends to generate increased wealth and power means that it is not only beneficial but almost inevitable, since those societies who resist modernization or fail to modernize will typically decline in wealth and power. Over time, in a competitive world, the most rapidly modernizing societies will displace the others [2] and [4].

Scientific research was one of the first global communication systems, especially at its most advanced levels. High quality post-doctoral scientific education is also now essentially global. The next steps will be for lower-level science education – at doctoral, undergraduate, and even school teaching levels – to become progressively globalized. This phenomenon is already happening in the quantitative sciences (such as mathematics, statistics, computing, engineering), and will in future spread to include other kinds of science.

Furthermore, globalization has two apparently contrasting aspects: standardization and differentiation. In science education this not only implies international standardization (‘harmonization’) of basic structures and communications on the one hand, but also national specialization of advanced-level education with a different profile of expertise for each country.

Early examples of globalization

Globalization is made possible and accelerated by long range communications (e.g., international telecommunications and rapid transportation), improved fidelity in communication (e.g., digital electronic information), and less costly communications (e.g., the internet) [4]. These technological advances enable and facilitate increasing specialization and coordination of functions; for instance the division of labour in a large organization such as a factory or hospital, or the differentiation of social functions in a modern society where major communication systems (such as the economy, law, the mass media and science) operate using functionally-distinctive selections, evaluations and rules [1] and [2].

However, growth in complexity depends on simplification and standardization of core processes. This can be seen in many complex biological and other systems – for example the many different types of large mammals and birds are built from very similar ‘standardized’ cells, and a great variety of complex computer programs may be built from very simple standard rules and notations. Globalization of education, entailing a growth in complexity of international educational communications, therefore implies standardization in its core communications to enable continued specialization of cutting-edge processes. Such standardizations include the evolution towards a common ‘educational language’, a standard educational structure, examinations and evaluations.

Perhaps the earliest modern example of educational globalization was in the performance and composition of classical music – where high-level training has been international for two or three centuries. Globalization of classical music was made possible by the universality of the musical language, and international equivalence in the evaluations of performance standards. International study was encouraged by the fact that elite musical training requires rare and exceptional individual teachers, as well as high concentrations of educational capital (e.g., the many orchestras and concerts of major cultural centres such as Vienna).

A similar situation already prevails for top-level, post-doctoral science education nowadays, and this dates back to the nineteenth century when the international pre-eminence of German universities stimulated a migration of aspirant scientists from other nations. During the twentieth century the centre of gravity for international science shifted to the UK then the USA – where it remains. However, different countries have top level expertise in specific sciences – for example, Germany has remained a major centre for chemistry, as reflected by its big share of Nobel Prizes [5].

In any given scientific speciality, the top level of professional training tends to be concentrated in a few places by the rarity of major individual scientists, and the scarcity of capital-intensive equipment.

A standard international trading medium

Educational globalization requires not just international communications, but also compatible and translatable educational evaluations. Such standardizations include a quantitative ‘trading medium’ (including educational structures and examinations), and a common ‘educational language’.

The economic system has money as its trading medium (which is a quantitative measure of economic value) and globalization of the economy has been made possible by the reliable system of global currency exchange. By analogy, the trading medium of formal systems of education comprises hierarchical educational certificates or ‘credits’ – for example school leaving certificates, undergraduate degrees and doctoral degrees. Educational credits are therefore the quantitative measures of educational value, and these are potentially exchangeable – for example when a UK university recognizes the equivalent value of a Dutch or US doctoral degree.

The globalization of education is therefore facilitated by an international system of transferable, cumulative and convertible educational credits. As the growth of the economy can be seen in terms of increased monetary wealth (when adjusted for inflation) so the growth of formal education can be seen in the increase of educational credits (when adjusted for inflation).

Educational structures will probably converge on the US model of higher education since this is the dominant, largest and most successful higher education system which combines the twin imperatives of top-quality research with mass educational provision [6] and [7]. This comprises undergraduate Bachelors degrees of four years full-time equivalent (with two year ‘associate degrees’ as a half-way form of certification). At a more micro-level of structure, it is likely that degrees will increasingly be modular, flexibly-organized around half-year semesters, and based on (transferable) credit accumulation. Masters degrees will comprise a minimum of one year full-time study, and there will be a minimum of three years for a Doctorate.

Once such an international system of hierarchical and quantitative certification is in place, then this will facilitate movement of students between countries; potentially allowing the best students to attend the best institutions, and the best institutions to appoint the best staff – a situation which would tend to improve the level of achievement in the system as a whole.

Objective and norm-referenced international examinations (resembling the SAT and GRE) will be used for selection of candidates from different countries and different institutions. Such examinations provide generally-reliable rankings, but are not good at maintaining standards or enforcing minimum levels of competence – and this educational role will need to be devolved to an institutional (or national) level.

The Bologna Process in the European Union, which aims to introduce EU-wide standardisation into the higher education systems of EU countries, could be seen as a welcome move towards the creation of a European educational trading medium [8]. However, at present, this amounts to little more than a re-labelling of existing structures. For example, Bologna does not seek to impose standard four year full-time-equivalent undergraduate degrees; but instead suggests that degrees should be a minimum of three years, which merely recognizes existing practice and does not advance compatibility between the US and Europe.

A standard international language

In some educational fields, such as classical music and mathematics, the primary language of communication is abstract and already international. But most sciences depend for their communication upon the spoken and written languages of the world – and globalization of education therefore requires an international spoken and written language.

It can be predicted that English will be the future language of global education. This has already happened in scientific research where English is the only necessary language for communication of significant research. All internationally-important science journals and conferences are conducted in the English language; and there has been the development of an international network of laboratories and research units using English as the primary medium of inter-personal communication.

But this international English of science communication is not the same language as that spoken and written ‘natively’ in North America, the UK or Australasia – instead the English of science is considerably simplified, stripped-down and utilitarian.

International science English is very factual, objective, descriptive and precise: it necessarily lacks many of the properties of language as used by native speakers. For example international science English is neither humorous nor ironical, lacks poetry and beauty, does not communicate by implication the social status of the author, nor does it imply the depth of cultural referencing. The language is functional, transparent and wholly explicit: what is says is what it means, and nothing more. It effectively and efficiently communicates science, but is not a suitable language for all social purposes.

The simpler and more-focused nature of international English means that it is very much easier and quicker to learn and to use than the language as deployed within countries for whom English is the first language. It also means that there is not very much scientific advantage for native speakers of English, since they are not able to deploy the full poetic and aesthetic resources of English, but are compelled to communicate science on a level playing field in which their cultural linguistic advantages are excluded.

When an English-speaking system of standard educational structures and exchangeable credits has emerged and stabilized, it will operate like a free trade area in economics – to benefit the participants at the expense of those who are excluded. Any nations who fail to reform their educational system to conform to the global educational system will be, in effect, erecting an educational ‘tariff barrier’ which will impair the ability of their citizens to maximize their individual potential, and will also inhibit their educational institutions from pursuing their comparative advantages in the international educational marketplace [9].

For example, if laboratories and schools in France were to use French as the medium of scientific communication when the rest of the world used English, French institutions would not be able to recruit as widely as institutions which communicated in English. French scientists who did not speak, read and write English would also be prevented from attaining their maximum professional potential. In other words, the trend towards standardization of education will (like economic free trade) be enforced mainly by the advantages of participation rather than by sanctions against exclusion.

Specialization in education

One aspect of the international trade system is therefore standardization – so that money becomes the quantitative medium of economic communication. But the other striking aspect of international trade is the specialization of nations, so that each nation has a different profile of expertise and dependency; of exports and imports; of things it does and things it does not. The UK (for instance) specializes in science (second only to the USA), but although it has a pretty good climate the UK produces an insignificant amount of food.

This is an example of the economic law of comparative advantage [9]. This law has interesting implications when applied to the system of science education. Comparative advantage originally explained the bilateral economic benefits of international free trade: for instance, how both trading nations benefit when each specializes in producing whatever it is best at. The UK is among the most expert nations in the field of financial services; and it makes economic sense for the UK to specialize in these activities, and to import food from countries such as Egypt and Spain, which are better at agriculture than they are at financial services.

Such considerations suggest that a global system of higher education will not be uniformly distributed between countries. For example, there will not be a Harvard or Cambridge in every country – but such universities will recruit personnel internationally and expand to provide academic personnel to the rest of the world. Even the richest nations will not provide top-level training in all academic and professional specialities, but will concentrate education in whatever they do best and will ‘import’ their other necessary expertise from abroad.

Comparative advantage probably explains why, even now, some wealthy and developed countries (such as France and Germany) do not posses internationally-recognized elite research universities; while much smaller countries (such as Sweden and Switzerland) do have premier universities. It may also clarify why engineering education in India is expanding so very rapidly [10].

Even premier science nations, such as the US and the UK, will tend to specialize. For example, neither the UK nor the US are currently producing enough mathematically-trained personnel from their native-educated populations. It is likely that, in a globalized educational system, relatively few countries – perhaps especially China and India – will specialize in advanced mathematical education, and may come to provide the bulk of world mathematics personnel – not just for pure and applied research but also for science teaching.

Globalization is already well advanced in scientific research, and we can see the beginnings of globalization in college and university teaching of the mathematical and quantitative sciences. With continued evolution of educational systems towards a standard international language and structure, it is likely that this phenomenon will extend to include other kinds of science.

Conclusion–convergence and differentiation

There are two complementary aspects to the globalization of science teaching: standardization and specialization. There is therefore a simultaneous trend towards international convergence of basic structures and national differentiation of specialist functions.

On the one hand, there is standardization of basic structures towards a single international system of educational certification. Eventually, all countries will share the same basic hierarchy of educational qualifications and examinations, and will communicate in a simplified form of English.

But on the other hand, globalization also entails continually increasing specialization of advanced functions. This implies that each country will end-up with a distinctive profile of specific scientific expertise (including both research and advanced training), and will ‘import’ other necessary forms of scientific expertise.

Eventually, no single country – not even the USA – will contain a fully-comprehensive range of advanced specialist scientific education and research institutions; and conversely some smaller, less-prosperous and less-developed countries may soon evolve to become global suppliers of specific types of scientific expertise, including science teachers.


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[2] B. Charlton and P. Andras, The modernization imperative, Imprint Academic, Exeter (UK) (2003).

[3] N. Luhmann, Globalization or world society: how to conceive of modern society, Int Rev Sociol 7 (1997), pp. 67–80.

[4] R. Wright, Nonzero: the logic of human destiny, Pantheon, New York (2000).

[5] Schoelhammer W. The Nobel Prize Survey 1999. [Accessed 03 Jan 2006].

[6] M. Trow, Comparative Perspectives on American Higher Education. In: M.A. Trow and T. Nybom, Editors, University and society: essays on the social role of research and higher education, Kingsley Publishers, London (1991).

[7] Tapper T, Palfreyman D. Convergence and divergence in the global market of mass higher education: predictions for 2010. OxCHEPS Occasional Paper No. 14. Oxford: OxCHEPS. , 2003. [Accessed 09 Jan 2006].

[8] European Commission. Education and training: The Bologna Process. Europa: gateway to the European Union. . [Accessed 05 Jan 2005].

[9] M. Bishop, Comparative advantage. Essential economics, The Economist/Profile Books, London (2004).

[10] Mallaby S. In, India, engineering success. Washington Post; 2 January 2006. p. A13.