Student dollars in search of new lands

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 January, 2005, 12:00am

Five years ago, Keiji Kato strayed from the path traversed by his schoolmates from Japan and instead of heading to a university in the United States, the 19-year-old decided to enrol at Capilano College in northern Vancouver.

The economics student from Oita, in southern Japan, says he has no regrets. 'It costs me 20 per cent less to study. The environment is better and the crime rate is lower.'

Academics said Mr Kato was only part of a growing trend of international students choosing universities outside the US.

Tightened security checks in the US after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and rising competition from the European Union, Australia and Canada are speeding the erosion of US dominance in international higher education, a multibillion-dollar business.

Alarmed by this shift, US universities - backed by the government - are working hard to lure back foreign students.

Don Wehrung, director of international student initiatives at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, said economic necessity was the reason.

'A large number of private colleges in the US depend very heavily on recruiting students from all over the world,' he noted. 'There is a lot at stake.'

For the 2003-2004 academic year, foreign-student enrolments in undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral programmes in the US fell for the first time in three decades.

Foreign applications to US graduate schools declined 28 per cent year on year, according to the Institute of International Education, a non-profit group that promotes academic exchanges.

The Council of Graduate Schools said the largest declines in admissions were 34 per cent from China, 19 per cent from India, and 12 per cent from South Korea. The trend was alarming, as Asian students made up 57 per cent of foreigners who study in the US, the institute said.

For the US, this is bad news. Aside from US$13 billion in annual school-related expenses, the almost 600,000 foreign students in the country are also a key reason why the US almost dominates in science and engineering.

About 50 per cent of the foreign students in US universities are enrolled in graduate programmes. Many stay on to pursue corporate or scientific careers in the US after they have finished their studies.

Alarmed by the declining numbers of foreign students, the US Council on Competitiveness warned in its report last month, 'InnovateAmerica', that 'for the first time in our history, the United States is confronting the possibility of a reverse brain drain', citing statistics that 'about a third of US winners of the Nobel Prize were born outside the United States'.

This concern is shared by Albert Teich, director of science and public policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Mr Teich says that if the drain continues, 'it will do irreparable harm to scientific progress as well as US competitiveness'.

All over the country, top universities are reporting falling foreign-application numbers.

With more than 6,000 foreign students, the University of Southern California has the largest international enrolment of any American institution. Its foreign student applications fell 30 per cent on the previous academic year.

The University of Maryland, College Park, with the most international students in the state, saw foreign graduate applications drop 36 per cent annually late last year.

Most US universities say they have not suffered financially from the decline in applications.

'We have made internationalisation a cornerstone of our educational philosophy,' says Jack Hawkins, the chancellor of Troy University in Alabama, which 14 years ago enrolled students from 13 nations and now from more than 50 countries. 'Most international students pay at least twice the amount of tuition charged to American students.'

According to the Association of International Educators, in the 2002-2003 academic year, foreign students and their families contributed more than US$12.85 billion to the US economy.

'What we are seeing in terms of international students now having options outside the US is just the tip of the iceberg,' said David Payne, an executive director of the Educational Testing Service.

Britain, with 50 per cent fewer students than in the US, ranks second in foreign-student enrolment, followed by Australia, France and Germany.

Canada, Britain and Australia are 'very aggressively' seeking students from abroad, said Sara Dumont, director of the AU Abroad Program at American University in Washington, DC.

In Britain, the number of students applying from China rose 4.5 per cent for the autumn term.