It's time for a US education pivot to Asia and beyond
It's a scene that occurs without fail near the end of most high school fall terms across the United States. Eager students attending a college fair, anxiously browsing through admission requirements and financial aid information, and trying to make sense out of the university admissions process. What made this particular fair stand out from others is that it took place not in the United States, but here in the heart of Southeast Asia - in Thailand.
The nearly 50 universities participating in a "Study in the USA" fair this September were here to grab a piece of the lucrative international student education market that last academic year contributed more than US$22 billion to the US economy, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). A just released IIE study, "Open Doors 2012," reports that the number of international students in the US increased 5.7 per cent to a record high of some 764,000 students during the 2011-2012 period, spurred on by growing numbers of students from China and Saudi Arabia.
Yet, these figures belie a striking trend. As a destination, the US is attracting a smaller and smaller share of overall international students, with the absolute number of students from some countries actually declining. Particularly striking in the most recent IIE data is a 7.4 per cent decline in the number of students from Thailand in the USt, falling from 8,200 to 7,600.
According to the IIE, the pool of international students grew 85 per cent from 2 million to 3.7 million between 2001 and 2010. Yet, the percentage studying in the US dropped from 28 per cent to 20 per cent during the same timeframe.
Much has been made of the US defence and diplomatic policy "pivot" eastward, reinforced by President Barack Obama's making Southeast Asia his first international trip since winning re-election. Yet, policy-makers in Washington also would be wise to do more to leverage more of America's core strengths - US businesses as well as the US higher education system - and address the reasons for the relative decline in the US's ability to attract even greater percentages of students from Asia.
While the US continues to be the No 1 destination for students studying outside their home country - with large numbers from China and India - universities in other English-speaking nations such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have ramped up recruitment initiatives to attract a larger share of this lucrative pool of prospects. Basic economics is one reason for this, with international students making a significant financial contribution to college budgets and local economies.
So, what more can be done in the US to attract students from Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia? The answer in part lies in taking a look at and learning from the conscious and quite deliberate decision by the others, especially Australia, to support their academic institutions abroad.
At present, the US student visa and application processes are distinct, separate procedures for international applicants. One is managed by the US State Department, the other by individual universities. A student who has been accepted to a US university may well find a visa comes too late, if at all, to begin studies on time. In contrast, some countries have streamlined and harmonised procedures to great effect.
Australia, for example, has created a programme that reduced paperwork and wait times for students by having the visa application and academic enrollment processes work more in tandem. Universities interested in becoming part of the programme had to apply to be included. Some 41 of 42 Australian universities now participate in the streamlined process.
A 2011 Australian Education International (AEI) survey of some 1,330 students from six key markets in Asia - China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam - sheds some light on the impact of such efforts. Overwhelmingly, students ranked Australia's procedures and approval waiting time as more efficient and faster than those of the US. Canada and the UK also received higher rankings than the US.
According to the IIE, international student enrollment as a percentage of overall student enrollments in 2011 in Australia reached 24 per cent, and in the UK, 16 per cent. The figure remains below 4 per cent in the US.
But there is another side to this competition for students that cannot be quantified. It is perhaps also far more valuable to the US than the short-term financial boom and diversity international students bring to campus. This is the "soft power" of international education and the effectiveness of people-to-people exchanges in helping win the "hearts and minds" of tomorrow's generation from Asia and around the world.
International students may well leave the US with a better understanding of - and a positive attitude toward - the American people. More often than not, they may well come away with a better appreciation of what the US stands for because they were able to experience it firsthand.
But the US and other English-speaking nations are not alone in seeing education as a part of the battle for global influence. Here too, China is emerging as a competitor. Recognizing the soft-power value of international education, China is steadily working to increase its number and share of international students - especially those from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). In 2011, more than 30,000 students from Asean nations studied inChina. That's a number that China plans to increase to 100,000 by 2020 under its "Double 100,000 Students Mobility Programme."
If this programme reaches its goal, vastly more students from Southeast Asia will be studying in China than in the US. At the moment, the US has the advantage. Some 46,000 students from Southeast Asia were studying in the US in the 2011-2012 academic year - a number that is relatively unchanged from the year before.
The US can no longer afford to ignore the success other nations have had in recruiting international students, and should look to a number of changes as it rebalances its worldwide focus toward Asia.
Here are three simple suggestions for a way forward.
First, take a lesson from others. The US should lay the groundwork for rolling out pilot programmes with leading educational institutions that would harmonise the university enrollment and visa application processes in order to reduce wait times and uncertainty.
Second, the US State Department's "Education USA" activities should further highlight the variety of US educational opportunities available. The US has internationally recognised state colleges that would be the envy of many nations, and would welcome more international students. Community colleges should also be promoted abroad. They are affordable and provide quality education, as well as a proven pathway to four-year universities.
Finally, it's about attitude. US policy-makers should recognise that international education is a valuable "commodity" as well as a competitive advantage that is increasingly being challenged. US inaction, or inability to adapt to this reality, is costing communities valuable revenue and missed opportunities to create valuable cultural links today that could well pay dividends down the road.
More than ever it's a time for a business and an education pivot by the US to Asia and beyond.