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US statement sets stage for coordinated national strategy for international education

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • A joint statement from the US Department of Education and Department of State expresses a “renewed focus on international education” on the part of the federal government
  • The statement sets out several key actions that government can take to boost international recruitment while also increasing participation by American students in study abroad

“Continuing to nurture a vibrant community of international students is a foreign policy imperative,” said US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who was speaking this week at the 2021 EducationUSA Forum.

Secretary Blinken also introduced a joint statement from the US Department of State and Department of Education, with the additional support of the Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security. The joint statement marks the first time in 20 years that the US government has taken such steps towards more coordinated action in support of the sector.

The statement, and the policy directions it signals, are all the more remarkable given that the United States, unlike other major study destinations, has never before had a national coordinated strategy for international education. While it stops short of formal strategy in that sense, the joint statement certainly appears to lay the foundation for one while also sending some clear messages to international markets.

“Together, we can ensure that students from around the world know that they are welcome on US campuses,” said Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who also spoke at the EducationUSA Forum earlier this week.

“This forum is an ideal moment to highlight America’s renewed focus on international education,” he added. “Now, more than ever, it is important that we promote and strengthen international education…The United States wholeheartedly welcomes international students, researchers, and scholars on US campuses.”

Fundamentally, the joint statement establishes a “renewed focus on international education” on the part of the federal government, and recognises that the US government “has a unique role in international education because of its responsibility to the American people; its purview over foreign affairs, national security, and economic and border policy; its capacity to provide national and global leadership; and its role in affecting how the United States is perceived globally.”

It also makes explicit links between international education and national security, the economy, and foreign policy: “Over the past two decades, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, economic challenges, cybersecurity threats, migration crises, climate change, and the COVID-19 pandemic have brought into stark relief that we are at another critical juncture. It is vital to reinforce our people-to-people relationships around the globe and to strengthen the infrastructure and pathways that help prepare Americans in all sectors to engage with the world.”

Through their joint statement, the Departments of State and Education have committed themselves to a number of action items in support of international education, including:

  • Encouraging more international students to come to the United States (and more American students to study abroad);
  • Ensuring that a strong focus on international education is part of America’s recovery from the pandemic;
  • Implementing “policies, procedures, and protocols so as to facilitate international
    education and authorised practical experiences while promoting program integrity and protecting national security;”
  • Clearly communicating “policy guidance and [implementing] fair, efficient and transparent support processes” for student visas and related services;
  • Fostering increased cooperation between the federal government, US higher education institutions, and the private sector around research and intellectual property protections.

Ready support

Peak education bodies in the US were quick to respond this week.

“The US Departments of State and Education’s Joint Statement of Principles is a welcome initiative that signals an exciting advancement in rebuilding and restoring US engagement with the world,” said NAFSA Executive Director and CEO Dr. Esther Brimmer. “NAFSA has advocated for a national strategy on international education for years and we look forward to continuing to work with the Biden-Harris administration to see these principles put into action.”

“Given the importance of this effort and the challenge often presented by government-wide initiatives, we strongly encourage the administration to establish a coordinating entity at the White House level to ensure future success and collaboration of all the necessary government agencies…NAFSA has detailed recommendations for the US Departments of State, Education, and other federal agencies that should be part of any broader international education strategy. We stand ready to help the Biden administration shape the approach and applaud this renewed focus on international education.”

More broadly, NAFSA has also called for a national strategy specifically for international student recruitment, one that would include enrolment and diversity targets along with links to immigration policy.

Speaking to Inside Higher Ed, Miriam Feldblum, co-founder and executive director of the Presidents Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, said that the statement was important in part because, “It did not stop with a vague commitment to international education and international students. It was specific about the importance of [optional practical training], about the importance of retention, about the impact to the economy on innovation, on communities. We take this seriously. We think that it’s the beginning of some really important conversations and action.”

A further statement from EnglishUSA adds the association’s perspective on the importance of language study as “an access point into the higher education system” and as a way for students to “develop cross-cultural communication skills and enhance self-awareness and understanding of diverse perspectives.” EnglishUSA is calling for a planning process that includes the ELT sector and Executive Director Cheryl Delk-Le Good affirmed that, “EnglishUSA looks forward to playing an active role alongside other industry leaders and US government agencies in crafting these plans, particularly as they relate to the needs of international students who plan to improve their opportunities through English language study in the US.”

The competitive context

The joint statement from the Departments of Education and State is the latest, and most substantial, indication that the still-new Biden administration is keen to reverse recent-year trends that have seen a softening of international enrolment in the US.

After decades of remarkably consistent and strong growth, the flow of foreign students to the US has slowed over the past several years. In 2018/19 the international student population in American universities increased by only 0.05%, and in 2019/20, there was a decline of 2% – the first such drop since 2005/06.

The country’s foreign enrolment was of course battered again in 2020/21 as the pandemic took hold. But the latest visa data from the US Department of State shows that the volume of visas issued for the coming academic year is now trending close to pre-pandemic levels.

And, while there is still a lot of uncertainty for the year ahead, the US remains far and away the leading study destination in the world. That status has certainly been challenged by Australia, Canada, and the UK, each of which has earned some market share from the US in recent years. But the Department of Education and Department of State statement this week now sends a powerful message that the US is prepared to compete harder for its share of the international student market going forward.

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