Tip the balance back and maintain US influence

May 7, 2004

The Bush administration must change policies if American academe is to retain its place on the global stage, says Philip Altbach

A large number of little things can add up to a major change - the "tipping point" identified by Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book of the same title.

A tipping point is now in action in international education as the US loses its central role as the preferred destination for students and scholars worldwide. Its role as the most influential system may be in jeopardy. The signs of decline are unmistakable. The US crisis creates unprecedented opportunities for the UK, Australia and others in the increasingly competitive market for international students and programmes.

For the first time in decades, the number of international students in the US this year has not grown - remaining virtually stagnant at 586,000. The immediate future looks bleak. Numbers taking the graduate record examination are down - by 50 per cent in China, 37 per cent in India, 15 per cent in South Korea and 43 per cent in Taiwan. These countries are among the largest senders of students to the US. Many universities have seen foreign applications fall. Princeton University reported a 50 per cent decline in Chinese applications and a decline of 28 per cent in overall foreign applications. Michigan, Syracuse, Duke, Georgetown and many other universities also noted steep declines. Fewer applications will mean fewer enrolments.

The world is not a static place, and the US is not the only player in international higher education. Students and scholars respond to a complex nexus of pushes and pulls when seeking a place to study. The demand for foreign study remains high - about 2 million students study abroad, and that number is likely to grow to 8 million by 2025. While the US stands still or declines, other countries - Australia, the UK and other European Union states - are moving ahead.

Tipping points have many causes, and the decline of America's international prominence is no exception. The "tip" occurs when there is a preponderance of precipitating forces. September 11 is a factor. Concern about security, the Patriot Act and other restrictions have created a profound change in attitudes and perceptions within the US and abroad. Many tales of difficulties experienced by students and scholars in obtaining visas, the perceived disrespect for visa applicants shown at US embassies and delays inherent in the entire immigration system have been significant deterrents.

Recent attitude surveys and a wealth of anecdotal evidence support this.

While foreign students say they feel reasonably safe and have few complaints, those thinking about studying in the US express fear about their safety, according to a recent survey prepared by JWT Specialised Communications.

The most important implications of America's declining presence in worldwide academe is not the $12 billion-plus (£6.7 billion) that international students contribute to the economy annually, but rather the future of US scientific and intellectual leadership.

In the globalised world of science and scholarship, knowledge knows no borders. The US is the most successful academic system in the world and benefits from attracting the best and brightest from other countries. Some of this talent remains in the country after completing academic degrees.

But most foreign graduates return home, and many keep up their relations with the US.

For US universities to maintain their quality and influence, they must continue to attract top-quality students and scholars from abroad. The sign of scientific power is the attractiveness of the university to people worldwide. If the present barriers are allowed to remain, the US will see a decline in the quality and the influence of its universities - and this will have lasting implications for the economy, for science and research, and for America's role in the world.

US academe has many strengths, and it is possible to reverse the decline.

American culture also has a certain lure to students from around the world.

English is the lingua franca of scholarship, and studying in an English-language environment is an attraction. And the US remains a relatively welcoming environment for students and scholars from other cultures.

But there needs to be a significant change in government policy to ensure that the US is again seen as a preferred destination for study. If this does not happen, the decline will accelerate, inevitably weakening a major national resource - the university.

Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

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