By Patricia H. Kushlis
Why is it that the US media focused almost exclusively and sometimes even rather "creatively" on the atmospherics surrounding President Obama’s recent trip to Asia but ignored much of the substance? Didn’t the White House reporters who accompanied the president understand that foreign affairs and substance are related? Don’t they realize that parsing the sentences of a joint communiqué or even reading the text of or listening to a Town Hall meeting (as opposed to being frustrated because they couldn’t use instant messaging to contact their editors – or Twitter their fans due to over-zealous Chinese censors) can bear not only fruit but a few surprises? And maybe even a news article at that? Or don’t they care? Or perhaps future educational opportunities for young Americans just don't rate.
One US media ignored surprise
One of those media ignored surprises was President Obama’s commitment first announced at the Town Hall meeting in Shanghai to expand the number of American students studying in China from 20,000 to 100,000. This commitment was reiterated in more detail later in a joint communiqué issued in Beijing. The number 100,000 was likely selected to match the approximate number of Chinese currently studying in the US. Regardless, it would also represent a huge jump in American students studying abroad. Furthermore, it would be an about-face from the Bush administration’s policies that emphasized one way “exchanges” – namely foreigners coming here – while specializing in sending Americans abroad on troop ships or planes.
I had decided ever since I lived in the Philippines in the early 1990s that it was as important for Americans to travel, live and work abroad as it is for the US to play host to foreigners. Unfortunately, the successive administrations all too often saw it differently. The US government related programs that did involve two way exchanges – with the exception of Fulbright and the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange – were defunded, eliminated or devalued. But in reality, several of them were by far the most cost effective. They also had the greatest chance of furthering long term people-to-people connections - which is what I thought student and youth exchanges were all about anyway.
An Agreement "in principle"
According to the US-Chinese communiqué, the two governments agreed “in principle to establish a new bilateral mechanism to facilitate these (student) exchanges.” The communiqué also states that the US “seeks to encourage more Americans to study in China by launching a new initiative to send 100,000 students to China over the coming four years.” Presumably this would occur under the rubric of the US-Chinese Cultural Agreement to be renegotiated in 2010 - although the communiqué itself does not so state.
I’m not sure how the President – or his speech writers – came up with the number of Americans studying in China as 20,000 because I thought the repository for that data was with the Institute of International Education (IIE) and the latest figure IIE reports is 13,165 for academic year 2007-8. This number includes all university students from under graduate to doctoral.
A Continental Destination Shift
Nevertheless, an increase of even 20-30,000 students per year over the present as the communiqué suggests as a target figure would place China as the single highest destination for American students studying abroad. The United Kingdom currently ranks number 1 with a total of 33,333 American students a year and Italy number 2. China is already the fifth most popular destination. Japan – number 11 on the IIE list of the most popular 25 – is the only other country in East Asia to attract a significant number of American students. India, the heart of the Subcontinent, meanwhile, comes in at 17. Overall, Europe is still by far the most popular destination – although the percentage of American students studying in regions elsewhere has climbed slightly since 2003.
But what would such a large increase of China-bound American students mean? How would the program - or more likely multiple programs - be financed? What US government agency or agencies would be tasked to design them, oversee them or even just act as a clearing house? Do Chinese universities have the capacity to host that many more Americans? Where will the US government (or encourage other entities to) get the funding? Or can the federal government afford not to somehow find the additional funds one way or another?
This could be far larger than the mostly one way “exchanges” from the former Soviet Union during the 1990s.
Who will administer and how?
It’s not only the State Department that is involved in the international exchanges game and most of what it is asked to administer is really run by inside the beltway contractors. So just watch a scramble for funds begin before the ink is dry on the renegotiated Cultural Agreement in 2010. I just hope that whatever happens, a cap is put on administrative overhead and indirect costs and that most American government funds to underwrite the program actually go to the students who, after all, are the people for whom the program is designed. I agree with the President: the US desperately needs to expand its Chinese expertise – and the most effective way is to study in the country.
But I also think whatever the modalities and funding turns out to be, the money should not be siphoned off by contractors or airlines or universities looking to pad their bottom lines. Hopefully, whatever increased federal funding will also stimulate the private sector, local and state governments to chip in as well. We’ll see.