Promoting Access and Equity in International Higher Education

Article excerpt

Former CIA director Robert M. Gates, now the president of Texas A&M University, warned in a March 31, 2004 New York Times op-ed that international student applications for fall 2004 have dropped at 90 percent of U.S. colleges and universities. Applications from India and China-the two largest exporters of international graduate students to U.S. universities-have fallen by 58 and 76 percent, respectively. Under-funded, poorly executed post-September 11, 2001 visa policies have discouraged thousands of foreign students from studying in the United States-they either stay at home or choose to study in more receptive countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom. By excluding talented foreign students, we lose their economic and scientific contributions to U.S. research universities and to U.S. society at large. Worse yet, according to Gates, the United States will suffer a resounding defeat in the "war of ideas" as it misses a key opportunity to "influence the young people in developing nations who will guide their countries in the future."

What Gates warns of is a shared fear among many in the fields of international education and exchange. In January 2003, NAFSA's Strategic Task Force on International Student Access, while noting that the United States already had been suffering declines due to the lack of a comprehensive and proactive strategy for increasing international student access to U.S. higher education, highlighted the four most pressing barriers to U.S. higher education facing international students. Two of those barriers mentioned-burdensome U.S. visa regulations and the high cost of U.S. higher education-have been exacerbated of late, and are clearly factors in the recent downturn in international applications. Speaking to the latter, the task force stated: "What we need are more financial aid opportunities for international students and an easy mechanism for accessing information about these options. Through creative partnerships among the stakeholders who have an interest in increasing international student access to the United States-including higher education institutions, the U.S. government, foreign governments, and the business community-the task force proposes that more loans, tuition exchanges, and scholarships be made available to international students" (NAFSA 2003).

The issue of cost is also a reminder of a deeper, more entrenched type of exclusion in higher education. Especially in developing countries, students have traditionally been shut out of the advantages of higher education because of poverty, gender, ethnicity, race, caste, religion, language, geographical isolation, political instability or physical disability, among other factors largely beyond their individual control. While some progress has been made worldwide in creating more socially inclusive education systems, in developing countries higher education still remains an unattainable dream for the vast majority of potential students.

Within this broader context, the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program (IFP) aims to promote a socially inclusive approach within higher education, particularly at the postgraduate level. Designed to continue through 2012, the program expects to provide some 3,000 fellowships, for use in any country in the world, to pursue master's, doctoral, or professional postgraduate degrees in a broad range of academic disciplines and interdisciplinary fields. Candidates are actively recruited from excluded and marginalized social groups and communities in 22 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and in Russia. Rather than using a single definition of "excluded groups," the program works with local partner organizations and a broad range of civil society actors to identify the most appropriate target groups for each country or region. Factors affecting groups of people such as socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, race, caste, religion, language, geographic isolation, political instability, and physical disability are taken into account. …