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Proposed US budget threatens educational exchange programs

Deep cuts to the State Department’s educational exchange programs outlined in the White House’s proposed 2018 budget would damage the US’s soft power diplomacy, education organisations have warned.

The White House budget proposes cuts to the State Department's Educational and Cultural Exchange program. Photo: flickr/jennandjon.

"The way to reduce the possibility of war is to increase people-to-people diplomacy – which is at the heart of educational exchanges"

The White House’s budget, A New Foundation for American Greatness, would cut funding for the State Department’s Educational and Cultural Exchange (ECE) programs, which include the prestigious Fulbright program, by 52%.

“Gutting exchange programs isn’t a win for the taxpayer, because the investment in national security is immense”

Under the proposed budget, resources for educational exchange “will be more narrowly targeted towards specific foreign policy priorities while avoiding duplication”, according to a congressional budget justification, focusing support on “core global programs” such as Fulbright.

But while it does allocate the majority of academic exchange spending – $125.6m of a total $148.6m – to Fulbright, the budget would still cut Fulbright funding by 52% compared to the 2017 budget estimate.

It would continue to operate in 90 countries (compared to 160 now) “where the program provides the greatest benefit to US interests”.

Global academic exchange programs – including English language programs and educational advising and student services – would be hardest hit, facing a 73% budget reduction.

Meanwhile, more than half the funding for professional and cultural exchanges would be removed.

The budget for program and performance activities, such as alumni engagement and program evaluation, would be slashed by 86%, and the ECE personnel budget by just over a third.

Some other “impactful programs” funding outbound mobility will also be maintained, such as the Gilman Scholarship and the Critical Language Scholarship.

And continued support for Education USA’s advising centers “will help reinforce foreign student interest in US higher education and study opportunities in the United States”, the budget justification adds.

If enacted, the cuts come as part of a $19bn reduction to US diplomacy and aid budgets – almost a third.

But those in the education sector have argued that these programs play a crucial diplomacy role. One in three world leaders have taken part in a US exchange program, noted Ilir Zherka, executive director of the Alliance for International Exchange.

“Gutting exchange programs isn’t a win for the taxpayer, because the investment in America’s national security is immense,” he said, adding: “If adopted, these cuts would greatly harm our nation’s public diplomacy efforts.

“As Defense Secretary James Mattis has suggested, the way to reduce the possibility of war is to increase people-to-people diplomacy – which is at the heart of cultural and educational exchanges.”

NAFSA echoed similar concerns. “As an organisation whose members are devoted to promoting the value of global understanding, we believe a reduction in the tools America uses to build bridges makes us all less secure,” its deputy executive director, public policy, Jill Welch, told The PIE News.

“We believe a reduction in the tools America uses to build bridges makes us all less secure”

“We urge the administration to reconsider its approach to international assistance and exchange efforts.”

The $4.1tn budget, which would come into effect in October, marks a sharp move away from non-military overseas engagement, while ramping up military expenditure.

“This budget requires some tough tradeoffs between competing priorities in both non-defence and also with the State, AID [Agency for International Development], and International Affairs Budget,” Doug Pitkin, the State Department’s director of budget and planning, said in a briefing.

The proposed cuts are reminiscent of those included in the March preliminary budget. However, these were overturned in the 2017 Omnibus Bill, which secured a 7% budget increase for educational and cultural exchange programs through the end of the year.

Several politicians have pledged to similarly thwart the cuts proposed this week.

“This budget is not going to go anywhere,” said Lindsey Graham, the Republican chair of the Senate subcommittee responsible for diplomacy and foreign aid, who argued the cuts would “gut soft power.”

“If we implemented this budget, you’d have to retreat from the world or put a lot of people at risk.”

Almost all of the proposals outlined in this week’s budget would require legislative action to take effect.

“As we continue to make the case for strong funding in fiscal year 2018, we will once again count on bipartisan congressional leaders and the thousands of exchange supporters across the country who will work to ensure that these programs are maintained,” Zherka said.

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