Touring Asia, U.S. Delegation Promotes American Higher Education

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Nov 28 15:30:28 UTC 2006
>>From the issue dated December 1, 2006

Touring Asia, U.S. Delegation Promotes American Higher Education


A delegation of senior U.S. government and higher-education officials has
wrapped up a seven-day Asia trip intended to deliver the message that the
United States still welcomes foreign students to its colleges and
universities. In what Margaret Spellings, the U.S. secretary of education,
said was the first time a cabinet member has conducted such a mission, she
traveled to Japan, South Korea, and China in November, accompanied by an
assistant secretary of state, Dina Habib Powell, and 12 American college
presidents.  They spent two days in each country, assuring government
officials, senior academics, and students that the U.S. government and
American colleges want foreign students to come to the United States, that
the process for obtaining a visa has been much improved during the past
two years, and that the American higher-education system remains strong.

"People believe that America has the finest higher education in the
world," Ms. Spellings told members of the American Chamber of Commerce in
Beijing on Friday. "But we will not take our prowess for granted. That's
why we're here." China sends more students to the United States than any
other country except India. South Korea and Japan are third and fourth,
respectively, among nations sending students. Educators and students were
clearly impressed by the delegation's visit, and several said they
believed the United States was sincerely trying to shake its unfriendly
image. But, they added, practical impediments remain, preventing many
students from achieving their goal of studying in the United States.

In China, for example, several students interviewed on the campus of
Beijing Normal University, at which the delegation spoke, said they knew
someone who had had a visa application rejected. And in Japan, educators
complained that nontraditional students, such as older students with
children, regularly have trouble securing visas. People in both countries
also mentioned the high cost of obtaining an American degree. The tour,
the first of several to be led by senior government officials, was
announced last January during a gathering of 120 college leaders invited
to meet with the State Department. Concerned about the steady drop in the
number of foreign students coming to the United States since the September
11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told
educators that the federal government planned to work more closely with
American academics to counter negative perceptions abroad and help engage
academe with the rest of the world.

The State Department has made significant strides in fixing problems
created by new visa regulations enacted after the attacks, such as
unnecessary delays in the visa review process. But many foreign students
continue to feel that the United States is much less open than it used to
be. Hence the promotional tour led by Ms. Spellings. Speaking in China,
Ms. Spellings said the number of visas issued to foreign students and
scholars reached an all-time high of nearly 600,000 last year, up 15
percent from a year earlier.

Enrollment turnaround?

China sent about 62,580 students to the United States in 2005, an increase
of 0.1 percent over the previous year. Those figures suggest that
enrollments of Chinese students in the United States, which had been
dropping since 2002, may be turning around. "We've been working to make
the process smoother, easier, and more transparent," Ms. Spellings told
the Beijing Normal University students, adding that 97 percent of
qualified student applicants get their visas "within a matter of days."
Ms. Powell, the assistant secretary of state, told Chinese and foreign
reporters at a news briefing that Chinese students may not be aware of
those improvements. "It's really perception versus reality," she said.

The university presidents accompanying the government officials backed up
those points with details about their campuses. David W. Leebron,
president of Rice University, said in an interview that about 95 percent
of Chinese students accepted to his university got their visas within a
few days. "Two years ago, I was very unhappy," Mr. Leebron said, "but the
situation has since turned around." He attributed the change to an
understanding by the Bush administration that international education is
important to America, and to cooperation among the Departments of State,
Education, and Homeland Security, which he said had worked together to
resolve problems regarding student visas.

At a round-table discussion involving the American delegation and the
presidents of leading Chinese universities, both groups said they were
eager to expand academic and research exchanges. "China is still a
developing country, and we face many challenges," said China's education
minister, Zhou Ji, adding that higher education has played a very
important role in the modernization of the country. "China has 1.3 billion
people," he said, "and if they are not well educated, it will be a heavy
burden for China."

Skeptical About Visas, Tuition

The two sides also emphasized the need to send more American students to
China. Although the number of American students heading to China grew by
35 percent in 2004, the actual numbers remain small: about 6,400,
according to the Institute of International Education, or roughly
one-tenth the number of Chinese students in the United States. Chen
Zhangliang, president of China Agricultural University, said Chinese
universities welcomed American students but encountered an obstacle in
that very few Americans could speak Chinese. "The language barrier is
huge," he said.

Ms. Spellings noted that American colleges were doing more to encourage
students to study abroad, with some creating short programs that are
relevant to students' fields of study. "Bottom line: They recognize that
studying abroad, even if for a short period of time, will broaden
students' perspective and change lives forever," she said. Chinese
students in Beijing welcomed the news of the visit by the delegation but
remained skeptical about the ease of obtaining visas and the prohibitive
cost of study in the United States.

Li Xingjian, who studies electronics at Tsinghua University, in Beijing,
said that cost prevented many students from applying to American colleges.
"I hope that the United States will lower the threshold, particularly
regarding tuition," he said, "because at present many students without
scholarships have no way to attend American universities." A 24-minute
video produced by the U.S. Commerce and Education Departments began
running on Chinese television stations in Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangdong
province while the delegation was visiting. In the video, Chinese students
in the United States explain the process of applying and describe student
life in America. The video is expected to be broadcast later by other
stations around China.

More Cooperation With Japan

The delegation's message and its reception were similar in Japan. As with
China, the number of students coming from Japan has fallen steadily in
recent years, to about 38,700 last year, a drop of more than 7,000
students since 2001. Unlike China, those figures do not appear to be
bouncing back this year, as preliminary reports indicate that the number
of new students continues to decline. "We are bullish on American higher
education," Ms. Spellings said at a round table of American and Japanese
university presidents. "We want more Japanese students to come and study
in the U.S."

The round table's moderator, Japan's former minister of education, Atsuko
Toyama, said that fear of terrorism had been a factor in the decline but
that the situation was improving, an assertion endorsed by the American
side. "We're happy with the trend line," said Ms. Powell. But American
educators at the meeting heard that married and adult Japanese students
were still being refused visas. "Having small children is an obstacle to
getting a U.S. visa," said Noriko Mizuta, president of Josai International
University. "Canada accepted our students."

One Japanese university president complained that Japan sent large numbers
of students to the United States but that America was not reciprocating.
Only about 1,600 American students study in Japan each year. Several
Japanese presidents recommended that universities in both countries
cooperate to develop shorter stays and new financial models, especially
for nontraditional students. Members of the delegation included the
leaders of the Community College of Philadelphia, the Indiana University
System, the Johns Hopkins University, Ohio State University, Piedmont
Community College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Rice University,
Seattle Pacific University, the State University of New York at Buffalo,
and the Universities of California at Santa Barbara, Florida, and Tulsa.

Ms. Spellings is proving herself one of the most peripatetic education
secretaries, having already made more foreign trips since taking her post
in January 2005 than her predecessor, Roderick R. Paige, did in four

David McNeill reported from Tokyo.
Section: International
Volume 53, Issue 15, Page A30

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