Development & Aid, Education, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, North America

EDUCATION: After Lull, Foreign Students Return to U.S.

Philip Rouwenhorst

NEW YORK, Nov 14 2007 (IPS) - For the first time since the 2001-02 school year, there has been an increase in the number of foreign students enrolled at colleges and universities in the United States, according to the latest annual report of the Institute of International Education.

Titled the “2007 Open Doors Report”, and supported by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, it found a modest three percent increase, to a total of 582,984 international students.

The figures are based on surveys of more than 2,800 higher education institutions in the United States.

“I think the American higher education community and the United States government over the past several years have really reached out to international students and scholars,” Allan Goodman, president of the IIE, which was founded nearly 90 years ago to promote academic freedom and exchange, told IPS.

“We have fixed the visa processing procedures [after tougher regulations following the 9/11 attacks] in a way that people understand and we have continued to send out the message that our country and our campuses welcome international students,” he said.

According to figures from the U.S. State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, the number of exchange and student visas issued in 2007 rose 10.2 percent compared to last year.

In general, more students worldwide are choosing to study abroad. But while the number of students choosing the U.S. is increasing, the total share of the United States overall of the international student market is declining.

According to the American Council on Education, between 1999 and 2004, international student enrollment in the U.S. rose by just 17 percent, whereas Japan’s share increased by 81 percent and European countries often welcomed over 40 percent more international students.

Asked whether this has anything to do with the deteriorating image of the United States abroad, which numerous polls suggest has been closely tied to Pres. George W. Bush’s “war on terror”, Goodman answered, “I do not think so. I think what matters most to students and their parents is quality of education. They can get the transparency of the process, and that’s why people still really want to come to America. People are discovering there are many places you can go for education, and it has much less to do with the image of any one country.”

“We’re still the number one destination and we still get more students then any other country. There are just more students now studying internationally then ever before. Our share of the pie is indeed smaller then it was 10 years ago,” he said.

“The very good news is that the pie, if I can use that word, is growing. And the even better news I think is that America still has a lot of capacity to welcome even a lot more international students.”

Asia sends the most students to the U.S., and for the sixth consecutive year, India was the leading source country, with 83,833 Indian students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education – a 10-percent increase.

China and the Republic of Korea, accounting for 67,723 and 62,392 international students in the U.S., respectively, complete the top three. Together, India, China and the Republic of Korea account for 59 percent of student enrollments.

The biggest increase was noted in the number of Saudi Arabian students. Due to a large Saudi Arabian government scholarship, the number of their students in the U.S. surged 128.7 percent, to 7,886.

The report also shows a 25-percent increase in students from the Middle East. Interestingly, more students from Iran (2,440 to 2,795), Iraq (190 to 262) and the Palestinian Authority (309 to 361) chose to study in the U.S. the last school year compared to 2005-2006.

Goodman said that trend did not surprise him, because “anybody that works in my field knows a fundamental rule: you know that educational exchange works in good times, but it also works in difficult times. Whether there are conflicts or disagreements between countries, people tend to want to get the best education possible.”

“They tend to go where the capacity is and the country plays a role by making sure that people can cross its borders in an open and secure way,” he said.

The number of students from Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman and the United Arab Emirates decreased, however. According to Goodman, there is a different explanation for each individual country, and after further analysing the data in coming weeks, IIE will come to a better understanding of what is happening at the national levels.

“In a world where higher education is in very short supply, it’s just very important to have countries like America who have more capacity and keep their doors open and get that word out,” Goodman stressed.

The number of U.S. students studying in other countries is also at record levels, rising to a total of 223,534, an 8.5-percent jump.

As in recent years, Britain was the number one destination for U.S. students (32,109) and Europe as a whole is still the leading continent, with 58 percent (130,274) of all students.

However, the Open Doors report reveals a European share decline of 65 percent compared to a decade ago. More U.S. students are choosing to study in so-called non-traditional destinations; enrollments in the Middle East went up by 31 percent, in Asia by 26 percent and in Africa by 19 percent.

“Academic exchange is vital for the U.S,” Goodman stressed. “It enables us to reach out to people all over the world to get the best minds and best talents to come to our schools and work on problems. It makes friends for our country and when people leave to go back home, which we very much hope they do, they go at a better appreciation for our people, our culture and our country.”

“That sows the seeds for future relationships, scientific cooperation, commercial cooperation, and political cooperation,” he said.

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