As Exchanges Lose a Political Rationale, Their Role Is Debated
More countries are looking at the programs they sponsor and asking, What's in it for us?
Exchange programs financed by the government and private foundations were once the cornerstones of international education
in the United States. They helped spur institutional ties, research alliances, and more exchanges. Until the demise of the Soviet
Union, the geopolitical rationale for many U.S.-sponsored exchange programs was abundantly clear: winning hearts and minds.
The political geography has changed significantly in the past decade, and so, too, has international education. Today, many
universities and consortia run large exchange programs of their own, the Internet allows scholars to keep in close contact with
international colleagues, and vast numbers of students go abroad for postsecondary education, often paying their own way.
All of that has left officials of government-sponsored academic exchanges in the United States and other countries grappling
with the role their programs should play in the post-cold-war era.
Economic competitiveness, research, and the expansion of the international dimensions of higher education are a few of the key
areas in which major exchange programs could make important contributions, scholars said here recently. They also said
exchange programs should now be designed with more-specific strategic aims. "Mobility as such -- the idea that you move the
people, and something will happen -- is becoming a smaller part of the international picture," said Ulrich Teichler, director of the Center for Research on Higher Education and Work at the University of Kassel, in Germany.
The need to find additional sources of support, educators said, is among the new realities with which sponsored-exchange
programs must contend. In the United States, total funds for federally sponsored exchange programs declined 15 percent from
1995 to 1998, and have grown only marginally since then.
The challenges facing such programs, and the ways in which they might change, were the subjects of a meeting here of scholars
and officials who administer sponsored exchanges in the United States and 15 other countries. The gathering was organized by
the German Academic Exchange Service, which works in tandem with that country's universities, and the Institute of
International Education, a U.S. organization that administers the Fulbright and Humphrey fellowship programs and many other
In the past, said Mr. Teichler, sponsored exchanges had a philanthropic overtone, "with the idea being to do things that would
benefit other people. Now the tone is changing, with more and more countries saying, 'What's in this for us?'"
The worldwide competition for fee-paying foreign students has a huge influence on international education in the United States
and other countries, and it also complicates the discussion of the future of exchange programs. So do distance-education
programs offered over the Internet, and the establishment of more branch campuses abroad.
"We are at a turning point in thinking about issues related to globalization and exchanges," said Philip G. Altbach, a professor of education at Boston College and director of its Center for International Higher Education. "All of them are mixed together, and we need to figure them out. If not, the cause of the globalization of higher education will be dramatically weakened."
Some scholars said forming strong relationships with partner institutions elsewhere in the world should be more important to
U.S. institutions than enrolling more foreign students. But efforts to increase such enrollment are what drive universities -- at
least those in the United States -- to engage in more international activities. Indeed, educators in some countries argue that how
far institutions go in drawing foreign students will determine much more than enrollment totals.
"The performance and prestige of a university more and more are being measured by its attractiveness to foreign students," said Klaus Borchard, rector of the University of Bonn.
In Germany, where the higher-education system is not known for academic flexibility, several leading universities have begun
programs -- some taught in English and based on an academic-credit system -- to make it easier for foreign students to enroll.
Although universities in some European countries are slowly moving toward adopting an academic-credit system, most of those in Germany are not.
Noting that state universities in Germany do not charge tuition, Mr. Borchard said foreign students were recruited and selected
for the intellectual capital they represented. "The only currency we value is brain," he said.
The curricular innovations, he explained, had been prompted by the recognition that foreign students recruited by German
universities were increasingly deciding to study in other countries, even if they had to pay fees, because of the academic
obstacles they found in Germany, including the language of instruction and the length and complex requirements of many degree programs.
Mr. Borchard said foreign students and scholars are important to German universities, because their presence helps bring about change. And the universities, because they have no tuition revenue to subsidize international exchanges, depend almost
exclusively on government programs to lure top students from abroad.
Baroness Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom, said the country's political leadership has prodded institutions to be more engaged in international education. Britain's current campaign to significantly increase foreign-student enrollment was being undertaken "for the sake of our own country's prosperity," she said.
"This is the first time in a generation that government has recognized the contribution that universities make to national life," said
Lady Warwick. "The Blair government has made clear that it knows that foreign students and academic exchange benefit U.K.
students, institutions, and society."
U.S. organizations involved in international education say the United States should be doing precisely what Britain is doing to
attract more foreign students. Some educators said it would be easier to make a case for more government support for
exchange programs if the United States had a national policy on international education, as has been advocated by Nafsa:
Association of International Educators and other groups.
Lady Warwick did acknowledge that support for Britain's campaign to enroll more foreign students had much to do with the
significant tuition paid by such students, a fact that other countries recognize as well.
"I see in Europe much more aggressive marketing and competition, with national agencies intent on getting a fair share of the
international-student pool," she said.
Guy Haug, a higher-education consultant based in France and a delegate at large of the Association of European Universities at last month's meeting, said such competition was unavoidable, given the demographic trends in Europe.
"We are seeing the end of the era of spontaneous growth of higher education, which means competition is coming, something
the institutions are not used to," he said. "They have little experience in going out and having to recruit paying students."
He suggested that sponsored-exchange programs and national higher-education agencies work to ensure that cooperation was
not eclipsed by competition.
Bonn's Mr. Borchard, pointing out that German universities have no financial stake in trying to attract foreign students, but that
U.S. institutions do earn tuition revenue from them, said, "I often ask myself what would be the position on international
educational exchange of our American partner universities if they would not profit financially from it."
L. Jay Oliva, president of New York University -- which last year enrolled 4,749 foreign students, more than any other U.S.
institution -- defended the current arrangement. "American universities are not just making money on this," he said, noting that
N.Y.U. operates centers in several countries for its own students and has extensive ties with overseas institutions, with which it
shares what he called "global faculty members."
"Internationalization is not easy," said Mr. Oliva, "and institutions are having to make real investments in this process,
investments in change."
Some educators said exchange-program sponsors could help institutions in various countries develop joint-degree programs, to better equip students for work in the global economy.
"Exchanges are good, but international programs of study are better," said Hans N. Weiler, a professor of education and
political science at Stanford University.
Mr. Weiler was the founding rector of the European University Viadrina, in Frankfurt an der Oder, a state institution established in 1992 on Germany's border with Poland. As he prepares to return to Stanford, where he previously spent 30 years on the faculty, Mr. Weiler said he was convinced that employers in the future will expect those they hire to have significant international exposure. "The job market won't accept only one semester of study abroad as adequate," he said.
Allan E. Goodman, president of the Institute of International Education, said exchange programs could play an important role in the development of new fields of study, such as environmental public health and the sociology of globalization.
"We know that globalization has not been kind to all countries and all markets," he said. "There are unanticipated, varied, and
often hostile reactions. Understanding their mechanics will be as important to a future business leader as to a diplomat.
"You cannot gain that understanding by virtual reality. It takes living in another society."
Some scholars said more attention should be paid to the impact of academic-exchange and technical-assistance programs.
"People in some countries are growing very concerned about the vulnerability of their own cultures, particularly in Eastern
Europe, and especially because of the use of the English language in teaching and the curriculum," said Daniel C. Matuszewski,
president of the International Research and Exchanges Board, which administers some U.S.-sponsored programs in several
"What seems to be a form of anti-Americanism is tied to some nerve being touched by these exchanges," he said. "The
perceived erosion of the culture may not be directly related to the exchanges, but people think that it is," which is reason enough to worry about it.
In the United States, as in Europe, the need to find new partners to broaden financial support for exchange programs is clear.
Alice Chandler, president emeritus of the State University of New York at New Paltz and author of Paying the Bill for
International Education, published last year by Nafsa, said her research had turned up "erratic patterns of support" for
exchange programs. "There is more money for relief efforts and less for research and education."
Ms. Chandler suggested that educators work harder to find corporate partners for exchange programs. "U.S. businesses spend $60-billion a year on training for between five and six million workers," she said. "The business community represents a large source of potential students for international education -- and also of financial and political support for it."
Harriet Mayor Fulbright, executive director of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, needed only a few words to make her case for exchange programs. The widow of Sen. J. William Fulbright, for whom the flagship U.S. exchange
program is named, said that while "the world is a smaller place" than it once seemed, much of the information about it comes to
people through various filters, such as CNN and the Internet. "The importance of academic exchange," she said, "is that it
enables you to go and see for yourself."