If the 21st century is to be the global era, then American universities will need to be international institutions.
A central part of this profile is made up of foreign students studying in American universities. But the news on this front is not good. According to figures from the Institute of International Education's recently released Open Doors study, the increase for this year is 0.3 percent - the smallest in the 26 years the IIE has been tracking flows.
If something isn't done, the United States will lose its standing as the world's preeminent place of study. At present, 453,787 foreign students study in the US - almost half of the world's total number of foreign students - indicating not only the size but also the reputation of America's colleges and universities.
After decreasing for two years, the number of foreign scholars - mostly senior researchers or scientists - increased only 2.3 percent in 1996 from the 1994-95 school year, totaling 59,074 such scholars.
These changes will affect American higher education significantly. US colleges and universities won't benefit from the infusion of new ideas from abroad. American students and faculty won't have direct contact with foreign colleagues. These contacts are especially important since so few Americans study overseas. This year, 84,403 American students went abroad - about one-half of 1 percent of the US student population.
The presence of a half million foreign students and scholars from virtually every country in the world is the most important element of globalism on American campuses. This decline in popularity indicates the decline in the status of American higher education - considered for decades as the best academic system in the world.
New immigration rules
A combination of government policies and current conditions in higher education contribute to this problem. New immigration rules will have a chilling effect on foreign student numbers. A hefty fee will soon be imposed on people coming to the US on student or scholar visas. Colleges and universities are being forced to police foreign students and scholars for immigration violations. Declines in research funds and other fiscal problems in higher education also have had a negative effect, since 16.5 percent of foreign students are funded by US colleges and universities.
At the same time that the US is making it more difficult to gain access to its higher education institutions, other countries are opening their doors. They recognize, for one thing, that foreign students contribute to the local economy. The European Union has several major programs to encourage intra-European study, and additional funds have been allocated to attract students from Russia and other Eastern European countries. Japan is getting close to reaching its goal of 100,000 foreign students by 2000. Australia is aggressively and successfully recruiting students from Asia. British universities have long been active in attracting students worldwide. Only the US seems to be turning its back on outsiders.
Foreign students and scholars contribute significantly to American higher education:
* Two-thirds pay for their education in the US and pump $7 billion into the US economy.
* Foreign students earn about one-third of all doctoral degrees awarded annually. They serve as research and teaching assistants in fields that attract few Americans at the doctoral level.
* Foreign scholars provide their (modestly paid) expertise to the laboratories and research projects in which they are located.
* When foreign students return home, they often maintain close relationships with the US.
* The small proportion of foreign students who remain in the US after finishing their studies play a useful role in the economy and academic system.
US policy is aimed in precisely the wrong direction and will result in future declines, much to the detriment of the nation's colleges and universities.
The following initiatives should be implemented to ready higher education for the global imperatives of the 21st century:
* The newly implemented and more restrictive immigration rules must be changed to make it easier, not more difficult, for legitimate students and scholars to enter the US for study and research.
* More American colleges and universities should recruit students and scholars from overseas.
* These institutions should at the same time make sure that the foreign students on campus are provided with the best possible academic experience and are fully integrated into the American student population.
* Programs such as the highly respected Fulbright scholarships and others that receive government funding should be adequately funded. Current budgets for many of these programs have been slashed in Washington.
* More American students should be encouraged to study abroad. Most who do choose to go abroad go to Western Europe. While 45,571 Japanese study in the US, only 2,212 Americans study in Japan. Worse still, few students sojourn in developing countries.
Current American policy will have two highly negative results. The US will no longer be the most attractive destination for foreign study, and American higher education will find it more difficult to internationalize. If the US is to maintain its worldwide academic leadership, it must reverse this trend.
* Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.