US aims to engage Muslim world via higher education

The idea of “education diplomacy” has “really arrived” at the highest levels of American foreign policy, a US State Department official has told an international higher education conference

February 25, 2013

Meghann Curtis, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Academic Programs at the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said that the bureau had always been driven by the notion that “we’d be a more stable, peaceful and prosperous world if we could all get to know one another”. But she said that the issue had recently become “incredibly important”.

Engagement with the Middle East and North Africa, and other Muslim-majority countries, was a top priority to address a “big deficit” in mutual understanding, she said in a round-table session, “The importance of academic exchange in foreign affairs” at the Association of International Education Administrators annual conference in New Orleans.

“I was having a conversation with folks at the White House, in the policy shop over there, and this idea of education diplomacy has really arrived,” she said.

And she added: “If you look at any strategic dialogue we have with any significant partner around the world increasingly there is education track of that dialogue.”

Ms Curtis said that the issue was “advancing on three fronts”: countries increasingly wanting to send their students for a US education; wanting to bring in more American faculty to internationalise campuses; and seeking to build higher education systems in line with the US model to “replicate some of the great work we’ve been doing in our country”.

philA top priority is the Middle East and North Africa.

“For the state department one of the biggest areas of concern and the place where we have the biggest deficit I’d say in mutual understanding is the Middle East,” Ms Curtis said. “We’ve been working really hard to figure out how to use our programmes there as effectively and as safely as possible.

“One of the big challenges there has been trying to keep the American cohort of any two-way exchange programme viable. We have had to stand down on tens and tens, hundreds in some cases, of exchange participants who were scheduled to go to say, Tunisia or Egypt and, just this last year, to Libya. It has been a problem that we really need to have a deeper relationship with that region of the world and we all see that as part of the long term solution for our foreign policy.”

She also said programmes to bring students and scholars from Muslim-majority countries into the US had been “ramped up”.

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