US loses pulling power

November 29, 1996

EXPRESSIONS of alarm over the static numbers of foreigners choosing to study in the United States have fallen on deaf government ears. There appears to be little appetite for challenging the aggressive overseas recruiting programmes of countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia.

The latest figures from the Institute of International Education in New York show that the number of students choosing US education grew by less than 0.3 per cent last year, an increase of a mere 1,000 students on about 463,000. The figures confirm a five-year trend.

Todd Davis, IIE research director, said: "We have not yet begun to fight. I don't think we've recognised the competition is there."

The threat to US higher education's global prominence was on the agenda this month at the annual meeting of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges in San Diego.

Norm Peterson, a professor at Montana State University with an expertise in international student flows, said: "The competition from other host countries has increased dramatically. While our increases have flattened, Australian enrolment in particular has gone through the roof."

Student enrolment from several Asian countries, considered the key market, has dropped.

But while academics and exchange groups are sounding warning bells, budget-cutting Washington is in no mood to reflect on the cultural, economic, and political benefits of international scholars. Public universities draw 60 per cent of foreign students and are funded by states.

Funding for the United States Information Agency, which runs foreign student advisory services around the world, has been cut by more than a third this year. Offices in small countries have been closed, at least one has been privatised, and further cuts are likely.

Michael Ditchkofsky, a vice president at Peterson's, which publishes a guide to US colleges and has taken over the agency's former office in Singapore, said: "There is an unwillingness to go on funding the kind of information services needed to bring in students."

Besides budget cuts, the new laws to tighten immigration loopholes are making it harder for students to get visas and to support their studies by working in the US.

This compares to Australia which has opened its doors to Asian students. But with only 38 higher education institutions, it is hardly a rival to the United States.

In the long run, the growth of indigenous capacity is a bigger issue. Hong Kong and Taiwan, for example, between 1989 and 1994 added 300,000 places. Turkey is building a huge university system.

The US commerce department calculates that foreign students bring about $7.5 billion into the economy every year, making it the fifth largest service sector export. The IIE has estimated that overseas students create 110,000 jobs.

In the 1960s the number coming to the US was growing by 10 per cent a year. In the 1970s, there was an influx of students from the newly rich oil countries, and in the 1980s Cold War scholarship programmes mounted in competition with the Soviet Union.

But while the economies of the rapidly expanding Asian "tigers" took some of the slack, the growth rate began to fall steadily in the 1990s. Without a new blip of students from Eastern Europe, the numbers would have fallen faster.

Another worrying trend is the quality of students, measured by the number of technical specialists and graduates. The proportion of graduates from South Korea, for example, has fallen from 72 per cent of incoming graduates in 1989 to less than 0.5 per cent.

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