Speaking in Vancouver at the annual conference of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, Vic Johnson, Nafsa’s senior adviser for public policy, said it was unlikely that recent cuts in funding would be reversed in the near future.
“Some international education programmes are in a world of trouble and some of them are going to close,” he added.
While this would be a painful process, Mr Johnson said, it could also have some benefits.
“This is the time for us to step back and reassess what the essence and the core of our missions are in these programmes,” he said.
“We need to emerge from this terrible budget situation prepared to grow, and that probably means being prepared to be not exactly what we were in the past.”
Carl Herrin, senior partner at Global Education Solutions, a higher education consultancy, said that the financial crisis had exposed the dangers of the “one egg, one basket” strategy many public universities had adopted towards funding international programmes.
He urged delegates to see multiple funding streams as essential.
“This may be the moment that American higher education has to find a new way to fund its core institutional support for these programmes, to make sure it is no longer dependent on government grants,” Mr Herrin said.
Mr Johnson said the funding difficulties were exacerbated by a dearth of active support for international higher education projects among policymakers in Washington.
“There is still a lot of support for international education and exchanges at the rhetorical level; we have a large level of bipartisan support. But, with very few exceptions, we’re nobody’s priority. Everybody loves us, but when the going gets tough, it’s not easy to find someone willing to make it their mission to make something happen. The fact of the matter is that politicians will vote for cuts,” he said.
Mr Johnson supported his argument by highlighting recent cuts to study-abroad scholarships and international programmes for US students, which in some cases have been as great as 40 per cent.
Meanwhile, Mr Herrin claimed that politically motivated intransigence on the part of Democrat and Republican policymakers was making a bad situation worse.
Predicting a victory for the Democrats and Barack Obama in the 2012 US presidential race and a victory for the Republican Party in the Senate, he said: “There is going to be continued disunity and disagreement and there is going to be continued economic pressure that reduces the size of the spend on higher education in general.”