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US gov’t suggests $421m cut in funding for education exchange

US funding for educational and cultural exchange programs, including the Fulbright Program, is facing a multi-million dollar reduction as part extensive cuts in the US FY21 budget proposal. 

The US administration has proposed cutting funding for educational and cultural exchange programs. Photo: Pexels/Aaron Kittredge

“Other federal agencies, whose primary missions are national security, implement similar programs"

The proposal suggests reducing funding for educational and cultural exchange programs, administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), from US$731 million to $310 million. 

“[The Fulbright Association] is very concerned that the budget does not align with 70 years of bipartisan commitment to int’l exchange”

While the proposal has led to concern in the international education community, it is worth noting that it is a reflection of the administration’s spending priorities and still has to be approved by Congress. 

The State Department currently manages over 75 active academic, professional, and cultural exchange programs. 

“The Fulbright Association, the alumni organisation of US grantees, is very concerned that the administration’s budget does not align with 70 years of bipartisan commitment to international exchange,” John Bader, executive director of the Fulbright Association, told The PIE News. 

“Exchanges have anchored our diplomatic, cultural, economic and educational relationships. Their positive impact is felt worldwide. 

“Yet this budget proposes severe cuts to these programs, such as a 56% cut to Fulbright. We will be asking our friends from both parties in Congress to continue their generous support of Fulbright and other exchange programs.”

The administration’s proposal outlines its justifications for reductions, saying that the large number of different exchange programs creates major challenges to effective program management. 

“Reducing the number of exchange programs to a core few would allow the State Department to focus its oversight resources on those programs that have demonstrated results,”  the proposal says.  

“The Administration has recognised the need to control spending and proposes to focus on a more limited set of exchange programs that most directly target the US government’s strategic needs, both in terms of the people recruited and the places from which they’re recruited.” 

The proposal also argues that globalisation and privately-financed expansion of people-to-people exchanges, academic study opportunities, and international visitors have fundamentally changed the landscape since federally funded exchange programs were authorised over 50 years ago. 

It cites the fact that out of the 1 million plus international students in the US in the 2018-2019 academic year, less than 1% of their funding was provided by State Department exchange programs. 

Another reason for the cuts, cited by the proposal, is a recent audit of the Department of State. 

The administration proposes to focus on a more limited set of exchange programs

“The State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) recently audited 12 cooperative agreements across the agency and its largest implementing organisation, totalling $403 million in awards and $265 million in expenses,” it says.  

The OIG found that the Department of State performed “inadequate” monitoring of agreements and that the implementing organisation did not always comply with certain terms and conditions of the agreements, such as maintaining supporting documentation for some cost-sharing expenses.

The International Education and Foreign Language Studies Domestic and Overseas Programs, which are facing elimination, are designed to strengthen the capability and performance of American education in foreign languages and international studies. 

The justification for the elimination of the programs centres around the administration’s argument that they are duplicative. 

“While the Administration recognises the critical need for the nation to have a readily available pool of international, regional, and advanced language experts for economic, foreign affairs, and national security purposes, this goal is not part of the Department of Education’s core mission. 

“Other federal agencies, whose primary missions are national security, implement similar programs and are better equipped to support this critical objective. Therefore, the Budget proposes to eliminate these duplicative programs.”

“The Alliance will continue advocating for robust funding for these programs”

Exactly which educational and cultural exchange programs would see a reduction in their funding, is currently unclear. 

“No decision on specific FY 2021 ECE programming will be made until a final budget is approved and enacted,” a State Department official told The PIE.

Ilir Zherka, executive director at the Alliance for International Exchange, told The PIE that “the Alliance will continue advocating for robust funding for these programs.

“Specifically, our request to Congress for FY2021 is to support funding for the US Department of State’s educational and cultural exchange programs at the FY2020 Senate level of $735.7 million.”

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