Can Biden reframe US international education?
The Biden administration’s newly released Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education is a welcome endorsement of the importance of international education to U.S. interests at home and abroad. It commits federal agencies to “undertaking actions to support a renewed focus on international education.” Will these principles be different from previous pronouncements? Will this finally end the pernicious coupling of international education with national security and instead marry it to the more harmonious partner, economic growth?
The U.S. higher education sector has witnessed a long history of cheap talk, accompanied by political actions that are often counterproductive. Critically, international education in the U.S. has been primarily framed from a national security lens — negatively associated with terrorism and illegal immigration, rather than with the actual realities of its economic benefits, research innovation and job creation. This is in marked contrast to competitors such as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and even China, where governments have actively marketed universities and been central to the sector’s growth. In those countries, government agencies overtly facilitate marketing, recruiting and relationship-building in key markets. Here, international education largely has existed in a milieu of apathy or even hostility. In some instances, clearly articulated preferences to support the expansion of international education have been stymied.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S. international education sector has not realized its true potential — to the detriment of both American and foreign students, and the broader economy. Countries such as Canada and Australia have taken advantage of and gained benefits from international education, including substantial international student income, surpluses that subsidize domestic students and support local jobs, research outputs, access to global talent, and goodwill.
With the exception of India, the U.S. has more universities and colleges than any country, many of them highly ranked and reputed for both teaching and research. The United States is one of the most desired destinations for international students to pursue further study, as demonstrated by student surveys.
While the U.S. ranks first in hosting the highest number of international students — about 1.075 million in 2020 — the reality is that the sector is severely under-performing relative to the competition. For example, Australia, which has a population of about 25 million and about 40 universities, boasted more than 500,000 international students in 2020. The United Kingdom had over 485,000 international students in the 2018-19 academic year — constituting about one in five of the total higher education student population in that country. In comparison, international students constitute only one in 20 (or 5 percent) of the total student population in the U.S.
Even Canada, which does not enjoy the advantages of the U.S., hosted 530,540 international students at the end of December 2020 — about one-fourth of the total student population in that country. Canada experienced a sharp drop since the COVID-19 pandemic: It had 642,000 foreign students in 2019, the third-largest in the world at that time. Notably, Canada has a fraction of the number of universities (about 163 public and private universities) in the U.S., meaning that international students make up a high proportion of its overall student body and general population of 38 million. International education is estimated to contribute about $22 billion to the economy and supports 170,000 jobs.
Note that the U.S. enjoys tremendous advantages over the competition: the English language, the preeminent economy, top-ranked universities, research dominance, cultural influence, and high quality of living, to name a few.
To put the United States’s underperformance into perspective, China hosted over 490,000 international students in 2018, despite language-related and other disadvantages.
Will President Biden’s renewed commitment to international education help the U.S. sector to perform better?
First, some key language. The principles acknowledge that “U.S. students, researchers, scholars and educators benefit when they engage with peers from around the world.” The document notes that citizens “need to be equipped with global and cultural competencies to navigate the ever-changing landscapes of education, international business, scientific discovery and innovation, and the global economy.” As noted, the principles proclaim several commitments but are imprecise and soft on detail. The more noteworthy ones promise to “implement policies, procedures and protocols so as to facilitate international education and authorized practical experiences while promoting program integrity and protecting national security.” They will “clearly communicate policy guidance and implement fair, efficient and transparent support processes while maintaining national security and upholding the law.”
Unfortunately, the actions do not reframe the government’s focus on international education. The “commitments” do not shift the frame, and it remains captured within the national security lens. The principles do accept that “International education benefits the national security of the United States. It supports U.S. diplomacy by promoting people-to-people ties that create goodwill and mutual understanding, while also advancing the security of the American people.” However, this language is buried in the “Context and Rationale” section, rather than in the commitments portion. And there are no specific actions outlined to implement the renewed focus on welcoming students.
The Biden administration’s statement could represent the dawn of a new national strategy. In order for it to be effective, there must be precise targets and enabling actions, including the retraining of staff at implementing agencies. In addition, there must be substantial deregulation — for example, removing the need for redundant approvals of new programs by government agencies bereft of such expertise; clear, non-discriminatory practices by officials in visa issuance; reasonable grievance redressal processes; and timely performance of tasks.
The race to lead the world order of tomorrow is a fierce one. It is likely to be won by nations with the best talent — a fact apparently recognized by competitor nations. The U.S. has ceded much of its historical advantages and yielded ground in the battle for international talent, but the exogenous shock generated by COVID-19 presents an unusual opportunity to regain lost ground. Critically, some of America’s international education competitors, such as Australia, have been impacted severely. Students who otherwise would have pursued their studies in those countries may be reconsidering their options. The question is whether the Biden administration will seize this chance to show them why it is in their interest to study in America.
Sandeep Gopalan, Ph.D., is the vice chancellor of Carolina University. He has taught law in four countries and was dean of law schools in Ireland and Australia.