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Biden Has Big Plans for International Education – Revisiting Some Recommendations

John Aubrey Douglass, Senior Research Fellow - Public Policy and Higher Education, Center for Studies in Higher Education | August 2, 2021

After decades of neglect, the Biden administration appears to be on the verge of developing a coherent federal strategy for promoting the international engagement of American higher education with the larger world.

Thus far, and unlike many of our economic competitors, international engagement has largely been self-funded and pursued by individuals and by universities and colleges, with the exception of what is in reality a small-scale Fulbright program, and vacillating visa policies.

Federal leadership and funding for supporting international students and collaborative research  has been unnecessarily timid — nothing on the scale of what the EU Horizon programs, for example, is attempting. At the same time, states have seen international education as a distraction that displaces native students and even faculty, and universities and colleges have increasingly become focused on international students for income generation as opposed to larger and more coherent goals that can meet national and regional needs.

In a seeming moment of enlightenment, however, the U.S. Departments of State and Education issued a joint statement last week announcing big plans to strengthen international academic ties, including the exchange of students and collaborative teaching and research. Why? Because it is a crucial strategy for advancing American security, foreign policy, prosperity, and innovation.

Back in 2009, Richard Edelstein and I wrote the paper “The Global Competition for Talent” published by our research center here at Berkeley. It reviewed the brain-gain policies of our economic competitors, and argued for a more coherent and concerted effort at promoting “international education” at the national and the state and institutional level, including a significant change in the mindset of universities. A version was published in Change Magazine.

While the world has changed — COVID, regressive anti-globalist policies under the Trump administration, growing tension with China – and not all our recommendations align with the Biden administration’s priorities, much of what we wrote is still relevant. For example, the US remains an underperformer in the percentage of undergraduates who are international students and faces increasing competition for talented graduate students and faculty.map of world

With a focus on the international exchange and market for talent, here is what we said back in 2009.

General Recommendations – Change the Mindset

  • Promote higher education as a critical US asset and export – Set a national goal to double the number of international students in the US over the next decade to match numbers in a group of competitor nations as a means to ensure the competitiveness of the US work force, expand the position of America’s universities as global leaders, and assert higher education as a vital US export with growth potential. Attracting talent in a global market and increasing degree attainment rates of the domestic population are not mutually exclusive goals. Indeed, they will be the hallmarks of the most competitive economies.
  • View globalization as a reciprocal relationship and build global networks – Enrolling international students should be part of a larger US strategy to increase cultural exchange and foreign aid; to expand the public mission of universities as global ventures rooted in national service; and to support the global flow of people, expertise, and knowledge.
  • Build enrollment and program capacity – Along with attracting and retaining international talent, US policy should focus on increasing degree production rates in the domestic population and greater efficiencies in achieving successful outcomes. This will require support for an expansion of US public universities’ and colleges’ enrollment and program capacity on a scale thus far not recognized at the national or state level. Few, if any, states currently have a strategic approach to expanding their public systems in light of population increases; they need to do so, and include capacity for international students.

National Strategic Goals and Policies

  • Elaborate a national policy on higher education as a critical national resource in the global economy that must attract talented students and scholars from abroad and prepare Americans to be competent professionals and leaders in an international context.
  • Develop national strategic goals for international student enrollments at both the undergraduate and graduate levels and link them to broader policy objectives in areas such as foreign relations, national economic development, and educational attainment.
  • Double international student enrollments to 1.25 million by 2020 with emphasis on increasing the percentage of undergraduate students and on public sector institutions.
  • Greater flexibility in visa policies and other strategies to improve both recruitment and “stay rates” for foreign nationals, and that reassess national security needs.
  • Increase financial resources to subsidize and support foreign students via grants, scholarships, loans, and paid work.
  • Marketing and recruiting – the federal government can help create a more unified sense of America’s diverse higher education system for foreign nationals, and improve the availability of information within a market that is often crowded with multiple, often profit-minded ventures.
  • Diversify the national origin of international students to anticipate new markets for talented students in the future.
  • Encourage and support American university partnerships and collaborations with counterpart institutions abroad via double and joint degree programs, consortia, and other forms of curricular cooperation.
  • Encourage and support foreign language acquisition and study abroad for American students, especially for periods of six months or more to nations and regions outside of Europe.

State-Level Strategic Goals and Policies

  • States need to move from a logic of public higher education as strictly a “local” asset to a logic of it being a national and global asset by more actively recruiting, enrolling, and supporting international students – the first states to fully understand this, and to follow up with concrete policies and funding, will reap large benefits.
  • States need to think creatively about increasing enrollment capacity to both meet goals of broadening access to higher education for state residents and to significantly grow the number of international students — particularly in areas such as STEM fields that meet state and national labor needs.
  • States need to increase financial support to expand resources for international students, via grants, loans, and providing subsidized opportunities for part-time work on and off campus.
  • In collaboration with targeted colleges and universities, states should undertake marketing efforts to increase the visibility of higher education institutions abroad and develop stronger relationships and networks outside the US.

Institutional-Level Strategic Goals and Policies: Recommendations

  • Develop and embrace an institutional strategy for international engagement that increases the intensity of international activities, makes them more central to institutional missions and culture, and creates more opportunities to learn in international contexts.
  • Identify and recruit a core group of faculty leaders, department chairs, and deans with international experience to help lead change efforts and to assist with the design and implementation of strategies, activities, and other new initiatives.
  • Recruit specialists in international program design and management with extensive experience abroad, language skills, and knowledge of higher education outside the US to provide advice and support to campus leadership.
  • Establish strong institutional relationships and partnerships with a limited number of strategically relevant universities, governments, and private groups outside the US as a base for building a global network of collaborators that provide access, information, and sources for talented students and faculty.

We also argued that the greatest capacity for the growth in the number of international students in quality programs lies in the public sector, and it is here that specific federal policies might be developed to work with states and accredited public colleges and universities. Building the capacity for attracting and enrolling international students, at the first degree and graduate level, will require a federal, state, and institutional partnership that can help target where investment might have the highest payoff economically and in quality.

At the same time, and like the strategy employed in the UK, the US should attempt to more fully diversify its sources of international students, with an eye toward where the current and next large market for international students will emerge.abstract map

At the federal level, a national marketing and recruitment strategy would better position US institutions in the face of the well-financed marketing schemes of other nations. This could include greater support for advising and recruiting centers located in American diplomatic missions abroad (EducationUSA advising centers). This State Department program serves as an important public relations and marketing tool that helps universities reach foreign students interested in studying in the US.

Federal leadership should also include more targeted funding and encouragement for a broader institutional integration of an international dimension to study and research at higher education institutions. Strengthening recruitment of international students is enhanced by broader institutional efforts to build relationships, partnerships, and networks abroad at the institutional level. Creating an international context for learning is among the most significant challenges facing our colleges and universities in the 21st century.

Finally, foreign language and cultural knowledge acquisition is also fundamental to building effective and competent graduates in a global context. Bringing more international students into our universities does not obviate the necessity of exposing American students to the rigors and complexities of functioning in the global economy. Foreign language study, cultural studies, and experience living abroad will increasingly become prerequisites for senior leaders in all sectors.

See our 2009 CSHE research paper for more information.