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US: Peak bodies call for national international education strategy

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Momentum is building in the US toward the development of a national strategy for international education
  • Peak bodies for US higher education are increasing their calls for the federal government to lead a strategy process, with an emphasis on more active and diversified recruitment and an expansion of US student participation in study abroad

The American Association of Community Colleges, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, American Council on Education, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Institute of International Education, NAFSA, and the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities have issued a statement calling on the US government to partner with higher education stakeholders “to enact policies and take coordinated action to support greater international student enrolment.”

The move follows a July 2021 joint statement from the US Departments of Education and State that staked out a renewed focus on international education on the part of the US federal government.

It appears as well immediately after the release of a new analysis which concludes that the economic impact of foreign students in the US fell by roughly 27% between 2019/20 and 2020/21. As NAFSA reports, “Findings show that the nearly one million international students at US colleges and universities contributed US$28.4 billion to the US economy during the 2020/21 academic year, a decline of nearly 27% (or $10.3 billion) from the prior academic year largely due to the pandemic. This is the second time, and second year in a row, that the dollar amount has declined since NAFSA began calculating the economic contributions of international students and their families to the US economy, more than 20 years ago. The combined two-year decline totals US$12.1 billion. Of the US$10.3 billion drop, NAFSA estimates US$9.4 billion (or 91%) is solely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Given the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international academic mobility, this significant drop in economic activity is not surprising, yet it need not be a trend that we are resigned to seeing continue,” said NASA Executive Director Esther Brimmer, who was commenting on the economic impact analysis. “We know that US colleges and universities are working tirelessly to support international students in a safe and effective manner during this challenging time. Their efforts would be greatly assisted by a coordinated governmental approach that both attracts and retains international student talent.”

As that comment suggests, NAFSA, along with the other peak bodies for higher education in the US, see a key role for the federal government in convening and implementing a national strategy. A separate statement from NAFSA puts some additional detail into the stakeholder proposals with a series of key recommendations.

  • Establish a coordinating body within the White House. “Chaired by a senior White House official and charged with developing a national strategy on international education, a coordinating council would provide strong leadership in helping to restore the United States’ attractiveness as a destination for international students.”
  • Establish a more proactive recruitment approach. The NAFSA statement puts an emphasis on expanding diversity of the international student base in the US, and on establishing strong links to US visa policy. It also proposes specific enrolment targets for the US, both for absolute enrolment numbers as well as national and socioeconomic diversity.
  • Expand US student participation in study abroad. “During the 2018/19 academic year, just over 347,000 US college students studied abroad for credit. This equates to less than 2% of US students enrolled in US higher education. With less than 10% ultimately graduating with a study abroad experience on their transcript, that means 90% of graduates are entering the workforce without the global skills, knowledge, and experiences that would position them for success in the global economy.”
  • Strengthen internationalisation efforts on US campuses. This aspect reflects a broader orientation to internationalising US higher education and envisions expanded research links, faculty exchange, foreign language instruction, and curriculum development.

“We find ourselves at a critical juncture for international education,” concludes NAFSA. “New international student enrolment at US colleges and universities has been in decline, more than 11% from fall 2016 through fall 2019, while US student participation in credit-bearing study abroad during the 2018/19 academic year grew only 1.6%. The COVID-19 pandemic, which began to impact US higher education institutions starting in March 2020, has exacerbated these trends, sharply reducing new international student enrolment by 46% in fall 2020 and grounding US study abroad programming in advance of the 2020/21 academic year. To restore international education will require a dedicated effort through administrative action.”

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