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Stressors in US HE sector amplify challenges to international ed – AIEA

Where international education in the US is heading in an increasingly uncertain political and global landscape was top of mind for many at the 2020 AIEA Annual Conference, held recently in Washington, DC.

Cheryl Matherly, immediate past president of AIEA and vice president and vice provost for International Affairs at Lehigh University. Photo: AIEA

AIEA provides an annual opportunity for attendees to discuss the strategic direction of international education

“It’s not only what’s happening in internationalisation that’s shifting, higher education is changing too”

This year’s theme was ‘Rethinking Comprehensive Internationalization for a Global Generation’, reflecting a growing sense in the field that the internationalisation of the US education has reached an inflection point.

The internationalisation of the US HE sector occurred rapidly, buoyed in large by the tremendous growth in student mobility from the early 2000s to today.

Within the US, international student enrolments have surpassed one million for the past two years. Along with the growth in international enrolments came an increased focus on internationalising the teaching, research and service components of the university.

Yet the tides may be turning. The rapid growth in international students in the US began to taper off in 2015, political rhetoric around globalisation and immigration shifted, and fewer institutions have been establishing outposts or branch campuses abroad.

These changes on the international education front are taking place within a broader set of challenges that the US higher education sector faces, such as consolidation and closures of institutions across the nation, changing students demographics, and questions about the future direction of education.

As Cheryl Matherly, immediate past president of AIEA and vice president and vice provost for International Affairs at Lehigh University told The PIE News: “It’s not only what’s happening in internationalisation that’s shifting, higher education is changing too. That is the big picture.

“I think all of us are aware that we are in this period of shift… and we’re all now trying to understand those forces that are going to be the drivers of change within the field, and which ones will have the longest term impact,” Matherly added.

The field may now be experiencing a partial “retrenchment” of the SIO position in particular, Matherly continued, as some institutions reorganise and restructure their departments, offices, and senior leadership.

Anecdotal reports about the retrenchment of SIO positions stands in contrast with the findings from the most recent American Council on Education ‘Mapping Internationalization on U.S. Campuses’ survey, published in 2017. The ACE Mapping survey is published every five years and has been tracking the internationalisation of academia since 2000.

Institutions were increasingly choosing to rely on a single office and SIO leadership to manage the international teaching, research and service activities, the 2017 ACE report found.

In the most recent report, nearly three out of four institutions said that they were accelerating internationalisation on their campus, and 53% said that they had an SIO to coordinate multiple international education activities or programs.

“Are we going to see institutions pulling back from their commitment to internationalisation?

Yet the data published then may no longer reflect the reality on the ground, due to how quickly the context is changing.

“When we see the next round of data, we’re curious to see if those trends we saw three years ago will hold steady,” Matherly told The PIE.

“Are we going to see institutions pulling back from their commitment to internationalisation?” she asked.

“Are we going to see more institutions saying that they’ve eliminated these SIO positions, or have consolidated them with other areas of administration?”

In other words, the 2017 report may prove to be a snapshot of the high watermark of internationalisation in the US.

Past AIEA president and dean for International Education and vice provost for Global Strategy at University at Albany-SUNY, Harvey Charles, told The PIE that internationalisation is “being buffeted” by a number of forces.

“I would ground this characterisation in the fact that internationalisation as a field of endeavour is relatively new,” he explained.

“As a field, we trace the origins of internationalisation to the end of the Second World War, but in terms of it being a mainstream element within the academy, we’re looking at only the past 35 or 40 years.”

Chief among these forces buffeting internationalisation, Charles said, is limited access to resources and funding for internationalisation, despite the fact that it can be a revenue-generator for institutions.

In the 2018/19 academic year alone, international students contributed $41 billion to the U.S. economy, according to NAFSA.

Any decline in enrolments at a particular institution can result in financial pressures, leading at least one school to take proactive measures to insure itself against a potential drop in Chinese student enrolments.

The steep decline in intensive English program enrolments, a trend that began in 2017, was a blow to higher education, Charles said.

IEPs serve as an entry point for many prospective international students to then go on for an undergraduate or graduate degree. They also were – and are – an important source of revenue.

Some prominent thinkers in attendance at the 2020 AIEA conference go a step beyond pointing out international education’s current troubles, arguing that internationalisation’s ‘golden age’ is over – or may have yet to occur.

Or, as Hans de Wit, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, put it in a previous PIE Chat, internationalisation is “dead”.

Asked at the 2020 conference if he still stands by that characterisation, de Wit agreed.

“We talk about internationalisation a lot, but it’s becoming a sort of general term without any meaning”

“Yes – in the sense that we talk about internationalisation a lot, but it’s becoming a sort of general term without any meaning,” said de Wit.

He said he sees a distinction between the international education activities being undertaken by colleges and universities and a more value-driven approach to internationalisation as a social enterprise.

“In terms of a really comprehensive internationalisation strategy [on the part] of institutions, of governments, I don’t think it’s happening, partly because there is still a revenue-based approach that’s driving the agenda,” de Wit added.

Convening senior international officers from across the globe, the AIEA conference provides an annual opportunity for attendees to discuss the strategic direction of international education at their home institutions, within the US, and globally.

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