SAM DILLON, writing for the New York Times, December 21, 2004, concludes that U.S. Slips in Attracting the World's Best Students. The question for us: can/should Africa create globally competitive universities?
American universities, which for half a century have
attracted the world's best and brightest students with
little effort, are suddenly facing intense competition as
higher education undergoes rapid globalization.
The European Union, moving methodically to compete with
American universities, is streamlining the continent's
higher education system and offering American-style degree
programs taught in English. Britain, Australia and New
Zealand are aggressively recruiting foreign students, as
are Asian centers like Taiwan and Hong Kong. And China,
which has declared that transforming 100 universities into
world-class research institutions is a national priority,
is persuading top Chinese scholars to return home from
"What we're starting to see in terms of international
students now having options outside the U.S. for
high-quality education is just the tip of the iceberg,"
said David G. Payne, an executive director of the
Educational Testing Service, which administers several
tests taken by foreign students to gain admission to
American universities. "Other countries are just starting
to expand their capacity for offering graduate education.
In the future, foreign students will have far greater
Foreign students contribute $13 billion to the American
economy annually. But this year brought clear signs that
the United States' overwhelming dominance of international
higher education may be ending. In July, Mr. Payne briefed
the National Academy of Sciences on a sharp plunge in the
number of students from India and China who had taken the
most recent administration of the Graduate Record Exam, a
requirement for applying to most graduate schools; it had
dropped by half.
Foreign applications to American graduate schools declined
28 percent this year. Actual foreign graduate student
enrollments dropped 6 percent. Enrollments of all foreign
students, in undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral
programs, fell for the first time in three decades in an
annual census released this fall. Meanwhile, university
enrollments have been surging in England, Germany and other
Some of the American decline, experts agree, is due to
post-Sept. 11 delays in processing student visas, which
have discouraged thousands of students, not only from the
Middle East but also from dozens of other nations, from
enrolling in the United States. American educators and even
some foreign ones say the visa difficulties are helping
foreign schools increase their share of the market.
"International education is big business for all of the
Anglophone countries, and the U.S. traditionally has
dominated the market without having to try very hard," said
Tim O'Brien, international development director at
Nottingham Trent University in England. "Now Australia, the
U.K., Ireland, New Zealand and Canada are competing for
that dollar, and our lives have been made easier because of
the difficulties that students are having getting into the
"International students say it's not worth queuing up for
two days outside the U.S. consulate in whatever country
they are in to get a visa when they can go to the U.K. so
much more easily."
American educators have been concerned since the fall of
2002, when large numbers of foreign students experienced
delays in visa processing. But few noticed the rapid
emergence of higher education as a global industry until
"Many U.S. campuses have not yet geared up for the
competition," said Peggy Blumenthal, a vice president at
the Institute for International Education.
Still, Ms. Blumenthal said, it remains unclear whether the
sudden decline in foreign enrollments is a one-time drop or
the beginning of a long slide.
Not all educators are expressing concern.
Sample, president of the University of Southern California
- which last year had 6,647 foreign students, the most of
any American university - said colleagues who lead other
universities had expressed anxiety at professional
"But we compete no holds barred among ourselves for the
best faculty, for students, for gifts and for grants, and
that's one of the reasons for our strength," Dr. Sample
said. "Now we'll compete with some overseas universities.
Fine with me, bring 'em on."
Certainly many American universities continue to be
extraordinary global brand names. Shanghai Jiao Tong
University has compiled an online academic ranking of 500
world universities, using criteria like the number of Nobel
Prizes won by faculty members and academic articles
published (ed.sjtu.edu.cn/rank/2004/2004Main.htm). Of the
top 20 on the list, 17 are American. Of the top 500, 170
During 2002, the most recent year for which comparable
figures are available, some 586,000 foreign students were
enrolled in United States universities, compared with about
270,000 in Britain, the world's second-largest higher
education destination, and 227,000 in Germany, the
third-largest. Foreign enrollments increased by 15 percent
that year in Britain, and in Germany by 10 percent.
The countries exporting the most students were China, South
Korea and India, but the annual global migration to
overseas universities involves two million students from
many countries traveling in many directions. That number is
exploding - by some estimates it will quadruple by 2025 -
as economic growth produces millions of new middle-class
students across Asia.
In October, the Organization for Economic Development and
Cooperation, an economic forum for 30 leading industrial
nations, took note of this global movement in a study.
StÈphan Vincent-Lancrin, an analyst at the organization's
headquarters in Paris and an author of the study, said that
traditionally most countries, including the United States,
had tried to attract foreign students as a way of
disseminating their nation's core values.
But three other strategies emerged in the 1990's, Dr.
Vincent-Lancrin said. Countries with aging populations like
Canada and Germany, pursuing a "skilled migration"
approach, have sought to recruit talented students in
strategic disciplines and to encourage them to settle after
graduation. Germany subsidizes foreign students so
generously that their education is free.
Australia and New Zealand, pursuing a "revenue generating"
approach, treat higher education as an industry, charging
foreign students full tuition. They compete effectively in
the world market because they offer quality education and
the costs of attaining some degrees in those countries are
lower than in the United States. Emerging countries like
India, China and Singapore, pursuing a "capacity building"
approach, view study abroad by thousands of their nation's
students as a way of training future professors and
researchers for their own university systems, which are
expanding rapidly, Dr. Vincent-Lancrin said.
In August a delegation of education officials from
Singapore visited Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the
University of Michigan, at the Ann Arbor campus. They took
over a conference room, set up computers and peppered her
with questions about tuition policy, fund-raising,
governance and research, Dr. Coleman recalled. They wanted
to know how Michigan became a prominent university, and how
it was run today.
"Eventually they'll reap the benefits of this work," Dr.
Coleman said. "Singapore will create world-class
universities. Other countries are taking the same approach.
We're going to have enormous competition. We'd better be
prepared for it."
The rapid changes in India and China have special
importance. The number of Indian students in the United
States has more than doubled in a decade, to 80,000, the
largest representation of any country. The 62,000 students
from China make up the second-largest group. Graduate
students and degree holders from those countries play a
critical role in American science, engineering and
information technology research.
Some 28 percent fewer Indian students applied to attend
American graduate schools this fall than last year,
according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools.
This matched the overall decline for all foreign students.
Rabindranath Panda, the education consul at India's
consulate in New York, said that huge private investments
in Indian higher education in recent years had greatly
increased options at home for Indian students, and that
those who wished to study abroad were increasingly looking
at universities not only in the United States and Britain
but also in France, Germany, Singapore and elsewhere.
Higher education is undergoing even more sweeping
transformation in China. The number of students seeking a
postsecondary degree is expected to rise to 16 million
students by 2005 from 11 million in 2000 and to keep rising
thereafter, according to a recent report by the
Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. Even
if only a small minority of those new students seek a
foreign degree, they will enlarge their already important
presence at hundreds of overseas universities.
But the new wave of Chinese students may not wash into the
United States. Educators say applicants from China face
more visa difficulties than applicants from any country
outside the Middle East.
One reason, they say, appears to be that many Chinese
students pursue the science disciplines that set off a
screening process known as Visa Mantis, intended to prevent
the transfer of sensitive technology. A Congressional study
found that during a three-month period last year, more than
half of all the Visa Mantis investigations worldwide
involved Chinese students. The especially long visa delays
experienced by Chinese students are a major irritant for
many university presidents.
"Chinese students are getting heightened scrutiny," said
the president of Princeton University, Shirley M. Tilghman.
"I've asked many people for the rationale, but I've never
gotten an answer that makes sense."
Chinese applications to American graduate schools fell 45
percent this year, while several European countries
announced surges in Chinese enrollment.
"We had an especially large increase in Chinese students,"
said Martina Nibbeling-Wriessnig, a spokeswoman for the
German Embassy in Washington.
The United States is also losing some Chinese scholars,
partly because of China's strategic decision over the last
decade to channel special investments to 100 universities
with a view to building them into world-class research
giants capable of winning Nobel Prizes.
In October, Dr. Coleman of the University of Michigan
visited Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which created the
online university ranking system and has also built a vast
new campus. Partly because Dr. Coleman is a biochemist, her
hosts took her to visit their new pharmacy school. It had
hired 16 professors, she said - all of them returned from
But not only Chinese universities are seeking to lure top
faculty members from American campuses.
"Baseball's World Series includes only American teams,"
said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University.
"But higher education is truly a world series now, because
we're competing for students and faculty against
universities all over the world."