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Thinking back on NAFSA: Aligning institutional, industry, and government goals

Nearly 9,000 international education professionals from around the world attended the annual NAFSA conference in Houston, Texas that wrapped up on June 1st. The great attendance – as well as the scope and quality of the presentations – speaks to the increasing sophistication and maturation of the international education sector.

So here is a question, given the indisputable importance of international education as a major export sector: why is it so often hampered by the conflicting actions of its stakeholders? And, what can be done about it?

This question came up in different forms countless times in Houston. The current policy debate in the US on institutions’ use of agents involving AIRC (the American International Recruitment Council), NACAC (the National Association for College Admission Counseling), and the State Department was much talked about. The State Department issued a 2009 policy directive prohibiting its overseas EducationUSA student-advising centres from working with paid recruitment agents. During a NAFSA panel discussion, Mitch Leventhal, board member and founder of AIRC, which develops standards of ethical practices and a system for accrediting recruiters, charged that the State Department has overstepped its authority, noting:

“Federal law says that government agencies should defer to industry-based standards unless those standards are illegal or impractical. [Through its 2009 directive], the State Department has wrongly superseded the authority of AIRC.”

At the least, the State Department’s policy serves to undermine the efforts of AIRC as a standards-setting and regulatory body, by making colleges and universities confused about whether or not they should use agents – regardless of the agent’s certification – and by frustrating those working relationships by barring agents from EducationUSA student fairs.

In another session “Global Changes and Challenges: Is the United States Doing Enough to Stay Competitive as a Study Destination?” the hot-button question was about whether the US should establish a national higher education agenda focused in defining and measuring degree content and outcomes. The presenters and participants expressed strong views about how much governmental participation and oversight is good for the American higher education sector.

Meanwhile, coinciding with the conference was the release of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s immigration think tank report, which argues that the US’s rigid visa policies are causing it to lose foreign graduates and workers its economy needs to other countries.

Not just a US issue

The US isn’t the only country where government and industry priorities are at odds. Some universities in the UK are reporting double-digit drops in applications from non-EU students since the announcement of new rules that restrict the number of years non-European Union students can spend studying as well as the hours of paid work they can do during and after their degrees. University leaders as well as business and political leaders in the UK are speaking out against the potentially devastating effects of the new rules to not only the university sector but the whole UK economy.

How can this be happening? To a large extent, the answer resides in the lack of coordination between the various stakeholders – in short, the lack of a national international education strategy.

There are three broad tiers of engagement in international education: institutions set out to forge international links and recruit international students, industry groups work to shape standards of practice, and government sets relevant policy.

In the UK and the US at least, it seems clear that what is required is greater harmonisation between these three tiers. Each tier will have its own goals and agendas; some will be unique, some will be conflicting with the others, but … some will be the same. For example:

In the US, the fact is that as baby boomers begin to retire en masse, there will be a labour shortage, and the Bloomberg report shows that there is already “a worrying slowdown in new business startups – an area historically boosted by immigrant entrepreneurs.” According to The PIE News:

“The [Bloomberg] report also projects a shortage of domestic graduates in STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] fields – vital for driving economic growth – and notes students from overseas are more likely to take these disciplines (about 60% of all foreign graduate students in the US in 2010 took STEM courses).”

This issue affects all stakeholders: institutional, industry, and government. The US needs foreign students, and needs them to stay in the country to help with the projected labour shortage and the gaps in vital fields. This common goal demands a cooperative effort and strategy involving all stakeholder groups.

Would such harmonisation be easy? No. There are no easy answers, and immigration policies are designed to affect much more than just rules about foreign students – not to mention that they are often crafted to balance short-term political interests with longer-term policy goals. But surely, with a sector this important to almost every national economy – there is room for improvement.

Moreover, there are countries in which there is in fact national coordination for the internationalisation of the higher education sector. In the NAFSA session “Comparative Regional Trends in Comprehensive Internationalisation,” RMIT’s Stephen Connelly described a process through which Australia is currently aiming to establish a national strategy for international education.

In October 2011, Australia’s Minister for Tertiary Education announced the formation of an International Education Advisory Council (IEAC). The role of the Council is to advise the government on a five-year national strategy to support sustainability and quality in the international education sector.

The IEAC process engages educators as well as community and business leaders. It also provides advice to the Australian Education Minister and rationalises key policy areas, including the introduction of a new regime for student visas.

One of the lessons of the Australian process, one that may have particular application in the US, is the critical role played by a high-level forum or group like the IEAC that can bring together major players for a productive discussion towards a national strategy and with strong links to government policy. Countries without such a forum will likely find the path to a harmonised national strategy much more elusive.

Sources: NAFSA, Bloomberg, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The PIE News

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