Speaking on the same day Open Doors figures showed that the US is hosting more than one million international students from over 200 countries, Anthony Koliha noted that “there is always more work to be done”.
“They are coming from nearly every location around the world and we are excited to host them,” Koliha, director of the Office of Global Educational Programs in the US Department of State, said at the event.
“We [at the State Department] definitely putting the work in, but the US can absolutely remain confident of the million plus number and the fact that we remain the top destination in the world.”
Roger Brindley, vice provost for global at PennState Global, however, suggested that the question of whether the US should be confident depends and anticipates that the US could likely see market share fall “a little bit” in the years ahead.
“I’m confident that the US universities are the best in the world,” he said.
“We have remarkable institutions in every way, shape or form from the largest research ones all the way to these immaculate small, private liberal arts colleges that do such a wonderful job, but I’m not entirely sure that we do a good job as a nation in ensuring access to all of that opportunity.”
“The talent is not lacking, it’s really just the opportunities”
Access was a key theme of the first day of the event, echoed through the powerful opening keynote from refugee activist and co-founder of Elimisha Kakuma, Mary Maker.
Executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange, Mark Overmann, stated that key for the sector’s success is about creating access.
“The talent is not lacking, it’s really just the opportunities,” he said.
Brindley noted that scholarship and investment will be important to widen opportunities but highlighted a need to create financial access.
“That’s a key moral and ethical issue that we all need to grapple with,” he said.
“I am a full professor of a faculty, so I think I can say this – we have to be extremely careful that the [academic] exceptionalism doesn’t become arrogance in the academic space.”
Senior director of government affairs at Shorelight, Shelley Landry, agreed, saying that while the sector is doing well, “we still make it “incredibly hard” for international students to come to the US”.
“It is not an easy process,” she said, pointing to challenges of visa counsellor capacity in some key markets.
The news that Indian numbers rose to 268,923 students – a 35% y-o-y increase – in the Open Doors data was “incredible”, but “we still have tens of thousands of students who weren’t able to even get a shot at a visa”.
She, like Brindley, also highlighted the importance of work opportunity post-graduation.
“We also don’t make that incredibly easy. We’ve got to figure out how we can come together as government, higher education and business to figure out a path forward that allows us to address policies and regulations in real time.
“Optional Practical Training can go away tomorrow. It comes close every couple of years, we’ve got to legislate that and ensure that we improve those processes,” she added, speaking about continued Washtech appeal to end the program.
The Supreme Court most recently declined to hear the case to end OPT in what was seen as a win for the industry.
Landry noted that the UK, Canada and Australia each have a form of national recruitment strategy, unlike the US – where stakeholders have long called for one.
“By having that national recruitment strategy, they’ve been able to address trends and challenges in real time, adjust their policies on streamlining visa processing and in post-graduation work opportunities, pathways to citizenship and in some cases marry the job gaps with education, with recruitment and education,” she said.
In the US, 5% of higher education institutions host between 60-70% of international students.
“We have over 3,700 schools that can take [them]. We want to diversify international education across this country. Not every school needs a thousand students – some schools only need a dozen or so to diversify their campus.
Initial findings from a survey Shorelight is conducting show the value international students see in OPT opportunities, she added.
“If [OPT] were to go away in the US, would they still choose to us or would they choose one of our global competitors? And we’re seeing a large percentage of international students that would choose somewhere else if OPT were not an option.”
Overmann mentioned that the challenge around creating a national policy is convincing representatives in Washington DC to “take some sort of action on the policies that we care about”.
“My optimism comes in that when we speak to most hill officers [in DC], no matter their politics, no matter their location, the idea of international students, the numbers, the dollars, is something they all respond so positively to,” he said.
“Where we find this hard, both Republican and Democrat, is getting members to take that final step.”
Koliha added that the US’s decentralised system of higher education is not well understood globally.
“You have to understand the US higher education system is difficult to navigate”
“When we are thinking about international students, you have to understand the US higher education system is difficult to navigate – our jobs are to make that easier,” he said.
Throughout the International Education Week, the State Department will release short videos from international students advocating for their schools, communities and the US, and explain their pathways to studying in the US.
“They will inspire communities to step up and figure out the funding mechanisms for those students who are phenomenal but can’t afford to come here.
“[It’s about] figuring out how to get that first international student to campus, especially those campuses that haven’t done so before,” he said.
“Whether you are hosting a thousand students, 10,000 students, 25,000 students or your first year, take that first step, get the word out to those students will then get the word out for you. I think that’s how we do it.”