International exchanges of students between the United States and Europe, including Britain, are weakening, according to a new survey.
The figures may mark a creeping regionalism in student choices, with Europeans, Americans and Asians sticking closer to their own continents, some analysts suggest.
The number of Britons studying in the US has dropped for the first time in ten years, according to the report Open Doors 1994/95 from the Institute for International Education. The drop matches an overall slowing of the foreign student influx into the US, particularly from western Europe.
The figures show a slight increase in the numbers of American students taking courses for credit in the UK. But while Britain is still the easy leader in the lucrative market for American students, luring more than double its nearest rival, France, the country's share of all Americans studying abroad has fallen from 28 per cent to 22 per cent in just six years.
Latin American exchanges with the US are booming, according to IIE expert Todd Davies. Australians are recruiting aggressively in South East Asia, the Japanese are active in China, while French, British and German students are choosing European Union options.
"The real story is that US study abroad is slowly but surely becoming somewhat more global in focus after really exclusively being a western European phenomenon," Mr Davies said. Europe still swallowed 67 per cent of all Americans who went overseas, but it was the lowest proportion ever, as students were encouraged to find more challenging destinations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
At the same time with people "choosing countries and destinations where they are likely to derive some kind of economic advantage in their own careers", Mr Davies said, it appears to mark the beginning of a "strong trend towards regionalism in study abroad".
The US still dominates the world of the mobile student, unsurprisingly for a country that has 15 million people in its higher education system. There were 452,635 international students on US campuses in 1994/95, a record figure though only 0.6 per cent higher than the year before.
Britain accounted for just 7,786 of these, down 0.5 per cent and meagre compared to over 45,000 from Japan in a list dominated by Asian countries. While the number of students from Germany and Italy increased, both France and Spain saw their numbers fall by more than Britain's.
Rising fees at US universities, accompanied by a financial squeeze that is forcing some of them to cut back on aid and concessions to foreign students, may account for the decrease, as well as economic conditions in Britain itself. "Institutions are under extreme financial pressure in the US," said Hector Munro, education attache at the British Embassy in Washington. "It is an understandable trend. It is probably quite a good figure because one would worry about a much bigger drop."
The number of students from the UK on American campuses has more than doubled in the last 20 years. From under 3,000 in 1975/76 it grew steadily with only minor interruptions to 7,828 in 1993/94 before dipping slightly this year.
The US sent 76,302 students abroad in 1993/94, a jump of 7 per cent on two years ago. The survey only covers those who took courses for academic credit in the US; another 25,000, it is estimated, may be studying independently overseas. The number of Americans ready to travel is still "an embarrassingly small number", said IIE president Richard Krasno. "In Europe on a per capita basis more students are moving."
The UK attracted 16,812 Americans. That was a 1.2 per cent increase on the previous year, but still well below the peak of more than 19,000 in 1989/90, and marked another drop for Britain in its overall share. There is a long tradition of transatlantic student exchanges between the US and the UK which exists with minimal help from the British government. British education continues to carry enormous cachet in the United States. American colleges like to offer study in Britain, while British colleges assiduously court American fee-paying students.
Many UK colleges tout their wares at the annual US conference of the National Association of International Educators. The British Council is trying to increase contacts between lesser known universities, with programmes that have linked the new University of Glamorgan, for example, with the South Dakota-based Huron University. Japan spends about $500 million a year on endowments and promoting exchanges, Germany has contributed $24 million to centres of German and European studies, and France provides about $400,000 for centres of excellence in French. The budget for British government programmes in the US by contrast runs to only about $15,000 annually.
But Harvard, Yale and about ten other US universities focus on different aspects of British studies, and the University of California at Berkeley is setting up a new programme. "For the most part British education sells itself," Mr Munro said. "The links are so extensive and deeply embedded that there has not been a need for a facilitation role."
The British Council has been working to extend studies in Britain beyond Shakespeare to engineering, for example, and to reach out to some less conventional catchment areas in the US, like the traditionally black Howard University in Washington DC.
* The US and the European Community this month launched a new programme for cooperation in higher education. More than 2 million ecu (Pounds 1.7 million) are available for up to ten joint projects. It requires applications by 26 January 1996.