Travel without a hidden agenda

December 21, 2007

The US wants more Americans to study abroad, but doing so for security reasons will only reinforce barriers, says Peter Brady.

"To protect our borders and defend our interest abroad" would seem like the mission for an international police agency, but in fact it is the reason given by the Commission on the Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Programme for its decision to dramatically increase the numbers of US students studying overseas.

The rhetoric of national security since the attacks of September 11, 2001, may well have been necessary to persuade US politicians of all hues to vote unanimously for the programme. But it could have a negative effect on the experience of those students and indeed on the countries to which the commission hopes to send them.

It is a bold proposal. In a country where only 20 per cent of people have a passport, the aim is that 50 per cent of all higher education graduates, some 1 million students a year, will study overseas. More dramatically, these students are to have the same demographic mix as the overall system in America, where 40 per cent of higher education students study in community colleges. Presently, these provide only 2 per cent of study- abroad students. Since such colleges serve the poorest areas of America, to massively increase the numbers from them studying overseas is a huge challenge.

The programme was approved by the Senate earlier this year but the State Department, which will manage the scheme, has refused to sign up to it. It is expected, however, that all issues will soon be resolved and the relatively modest federal funding of £60 million a year will be made available.

Contrast this with the European Union. The EU funds study abroad within Europe to the tune of £100 million a year. This pays for the mobility of 150,000 students, considerably fewer than the 1 million the commission envisages. But on top of this, individual countries willingly pay for other nationals to study in their universities; the UK educated more than 100,000 university students from other EU countries in 2005-06. This mix of having overseas students on campus and home students pursuing an education overseas is seen in Europe as essential to a truly international education, one that helps countries keep their place in the global economy and produces graduates who can work in a multicultural environment.

The effect of the Lincoln Fellowship Scheme would be to internationalise the US education system. But the flavour of internationalisation you end up with depends on the balance between the main drivers of that internationalisation. These drivers are generally recognised as being economic, social, academic and political. But, in the case of America, we would have to add a new one - national security.

One need only look to the publication from the Lincoln Commission Global Competence and National Need: One Million Americans Studying Abroad to see why. As you read, the feeling of America as a nation under siege comes through insistently. The opening lines state that "on the international stage, what nations don't know can hurt them". It uses phrases such as "the United States is buffeted by international forces". It recalls how "Americans remember the desperate search for speakers of Arabic, Farsi and Pashto that followed September 11, 2001" - all this in the first two pages.

If funding to institutions and students is based on the rationale that the experience is to help secure the country's borders, institutions will create programmes that reflect this. But such programmes will not help protect America. On the contrary, they will cause resentment from host countries: who would be happy for a foreigner to come to learn their language and details of their culture to be used in case of conflict? More dangerously, such programmes would reinforce stereotypes, thus making barriers to mutual understanding higher rather than breaking them down as education should.

There is no doubt that the supporters of the Lincoln Commission have a far broader vision of what internationalisation is and the benefits of study abroad. Within the document, they mention the need to remain competitive in the global economy. Maintaining commercial dominance would seem a far better rationale as a main driver towards internationalisation than security. Programmes created with the economic benefits to the individual and country in mind would do far more for America than those created for national security purposes.

The truth is that increasing international security should be a by-product of a larger number and a more diverse range of Americans having experience overseas. Not only will America benefit, but citizens of other nations could have their views of America challenged by meeting bright young students from differing backgrounds. But the experience must be a rounded one and one that encourages the fostering of understanding and lifelong friendships. This will never be possible unless the rhetoric of national security is ditched and students can embark on this adventure without a hidden agenda.

Peter Brady is head of the international office at Napier University.

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