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Study Abroad: A 21st Century Perspective - Volume 1

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The Contribution of International Educational Exchange to the International Education of Americans: My 1990 Forecasts Revisited by Barbara Burn
Associate Provost, International Student Services, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

In 1990 I wrote a paper entitled The Contribution of International Educational Exchange to the International Education of Americans1. It was one of a half dozen papers prepared for a conference at which forty some national leaders from higher education, politics, and foreign policy reflected on the role that international educational exchange should play in the future of the United States. In this paper I revisit the earlier one and update and rethink my ideas and conclusions of a decade ago. This again calls for assessing major developments in higher education worldwide, especially in countries which attract many American students and scholars and those countries, a different set, from which numbers of foreign students and scholars come to the U.S. to pursue higher education and research.

I was pleased to see that my "take" a decade ago on the international scene still has much validity. Our globalized world yet more urgently puts a premium on Americans' acquiring international education and experience. Nor is the need less for the U.S. to send experts abroad to help address major world problems such as famine, environmental degradation, and drug abuse. One problem, AIDS, referred to in my earlier paper as a possible "serious deterrent to international exchanges with some regions and countries," has become a major concern in study abroad.

Exchanges with Russia and East Central Europe
My earlier look at developments in major world regions was way off the mark on the former Soviet Union and East Central Europe. Rather than the end of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet regime's increasing U.S. study abroad in the region, diminished student interest along with concern about safety and deteriorating living conditions caused U.S. study abroad in Russia to plummet nearly 25 percent in recent years. Nor have there been the significant levels of study abroad by U.S. students in countries like Hungary and former Czechoslovakia that observers predicted after the initial novelty wore off. Moreover the number of students coming to the U.S. from Russia and East Central Europe has also exceeded my projections, in part reflecting the high quality of the graduates of their best secondary and post-secondary education institutions.

Exchanges with The Middle East
U.S. study abroad in the Middle East continues low. Arab-Israeli tensions threaten stability while language barriers, problems of overcrowding in many of the region's universities, plus U.S. students' relative lack of interest in the Middle East effectively limit U.S. study abroad there. Exceptions are Israel and the outstanding American universities as in Beirut and Cairo. The number of students from the Middle East at U.S. colleges and universities also remains low; it is only the very wealthy can afford to study in the U.S. Also the last decade has seen considerable expansion in higher education capacity in the region including both private and public institutions, which helps meet student demand.

Exchanges with Latin America
My expectations for educational exchanges between the U.S. and Latin America mistakenly assumed that problems of instability, inflexible economic systems, and the relatively low quality in some education systems would impede the growth of exchanges. Most Latin American countries now have democratic governments, their economies are diversifying and globalizing, and there has been a dramatic growth in private higher education, now enrolling half of all students. More U.S. students now study abroad in Latin American countries, up 15+ percent in the last several years, while Latin American students studying in the U.S. are up some 11 percent. The increase in U.S. students in Latin America reflects their focus on Spanish among foreign language choices, their greater interest in non-European study abroad sites, and the development in some Latin American systems of universities and facilities acknowledged as outstanding.

Exchanges with Africa
Ten years ago I stated that "Higher education in Africa and the outlook for increased educational exchanges between Africa and the U.S. face grim prospects unless major efforts to improve the African economies are undertaken and effective." In fact a number of changes have taken place which are expected to continue to be favorable to U.S.-Africa educational exchanges.

The release in South Africa of Nelson Mandela and his election as the first non-white president have made possible major transformations in that country; in integrating higher education, in attracting numbers of U.S. scholars and students, and in dramatic increases (from almost none) in the number of South African students and scholars coming to the U.S.
More African countries, Nigeria among them, have established democratic governments, bringing the greater political stability so important to cultural and educational interchange.
More U.S. students seek to pursue studies in African countries as part of the increased priority to study abroad in under-represented countries and by U.S. minority students.
Overall, however, the 1998 criticisms of the World Bank still need to be addressed: the universities' lack of autonomy, the need to diversify their sources of funding, and the huge student demand placed on their generally inadequate facilities and over-stretched staff. However, recent trends, including privatization, suggest efforts to strengthen the quality and relevance of higher education in a growing number of African countries.

Exchanges with Asia
The recent increase in U.S. students pursuing in Asia has been only 5-10% while the percentage of foreign students from Asia has not been much affected by the economic crisis in Asia. According to the IEE in 1998-9, it was 56 percent, up from 52.2 ten years ago. The uneven quality of higher education in some countries in the region deters U.S. scholars/students from wanting to spend time there, as do the major cultural differences, thus helping to explain why so few U.S. students/scholars spend time in Asia.

Exchanges with Europe
Turning to Western Europe, my predicted increase in exchanges with the U.S. was too cautious. The Sorbonne Declaration of May 1998 calling for the "harmonization of the architecture of higher education qualification systems" in Europe, followed by the Bologna Declaration of June 1999, by articulating and fostering the Europeanization of higher education in Europe (including East Central Europe) have been laying an important foundation for wider internationalization. The dramatic development of a sense of European identity, is partly a product of the pan-European courts, especially the European Court of Justice, and of the European Union's exchanges of students and teaching staff and encouragement of European studies. The Bologna Declaration in advocating the comparability of degrees and a Europe-wide two-cycle higher education structure and academic credits system looks to a higher education system committed to educational exchanges and the linking of curricula and research worldwide.

The recently announced intention in the UK to introduce community colleges, the November 1997 recommendations of the German Rector's Conference that universities and Fachhochschulen offer Bachelor's and Master's degrees, the ubiquitous concern of higher education institutions in Europe to attract foreign students, e.g. through offering courses in English, are bringing European and U.S. higher education closer together. These changes may raise the comfort level of U.S. faculty members in encouraging their students to study in Europe, and of students and their parents/partners with the prospect of this experience. In all this the ERASMUS, now Socrates, student exchange program has been a catalyst and model.

The United States
As predicted in my earlier publication, the rate of increase of foreign students in U.S. has been declining. The several reasons are: 1) the strengthening and expansion of undergraduate and graduate education in many countries abroad, for example, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and East/Central Europe, 2) the sharpening international competition for foreign students, especially with other English language countries (the UK, Canada, Australia, and more recently New Zealand), and 3) the recent financial downturn in Asia and the problems of somewhat depressed economies in some of the advanced nations such as Germany, Australia, and Canada making U.S. university tuition very expensive.

Looking at study abroad by U.S. students, 10 years ago I had predicted growth, depending on such factors as whether faculty members became more supportive, and more efforts are made to encourage more minority students to study abroad and more professional school students, such as engineers, see it as a plus in their future careers. Impressive growth has in fact taken place with over 114,000 U.S. undergraduates studying abroad as part of their degree programs. At the same time several developments have emerged as obstacles to what can be defined as a foreign experience. These include the decline in foreign language study by undergraduates, if not in absolute numbers as a percentage of all undergraduates, the trend for U.S. students to study abroad only for short periods (January, summer or semester rather than an academic year), and the pervasive impact of e-mail. U.S. study abroad students now remain in such constant communication with families, friends, and faculty advisors in the U.S. that in a way they never leave home. Added to this is the fact that more and more the experience abroad of U.S. students is multicultural rather than immersion in a foreign culture. The internationalization of higher education by bringing many more foreign students to campuses abroad, whether through ERASMUS/SOCRATES or foreign student recruiting for financial motives results in the U.S. students often having more contact with other foreign students than locals (itself an important international education experience).

Somewhat related to this is the move by many higher education institutions worldwide to offer courses to students at foreign institutions, for example through what the British call franchising, and for professors to offer courses which are partnered with an institution abroad (students at both institutions are in the same course). Moreover, distance education may in some observers' view replace or render superfluous study abroad programs.

A major impact on all this will be and is being made by the globalization of the international economy and world community. International jobs less and less look to the foreign language, area studies, and culture background of job applicants. With the disintegration of the Soviet Alliance system and superpower rivalry has come a reduction of the centrality of the political-military paradigm in international relations and a rise in the importance of economic activity. For scholars and students concerned about international affairs, the now more central role of economic relations brings a greater focus on this area and less on research on world cultures, languages and the countries involved. The internationalization of higher education and the globalization of international affairs join with the velocity of electronic communication development to blur boundaries and radically alter the learning needs for careers in what has become a transnational field.

1 Burn, Barbara, The Contribution of International Educational Exchange to the International Education of Americans: Projections for the Year 2000, New York: Council on International Educational Exchange, 1990.

Next article: Globalization and the New Imperative for Study Abroad by John G. Sommer

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