As "the world becomes flat" amid "increasing globalization" and a greater focus on "international education," what is clear -- besides an ever-flowing stream of buzzwords -- is that as trade and travel between nations increases, so will the tendency for universities to expand into territory beyond U.S. shores.
This trend has the potential to do a lot of good, as witnesses representing several top research institutions testified before a House of Representatives panel on Thursday. But, they acknowledged, there are tradeoffs, too -- and as they spoke before the mostly sympathetic Committee on Science and Technology, a consensus emerged that although American higher education remains the best in the world, its position is becoming increasingly precarious and vulnerable to competition.
The session, the second in a series of hearings on innovation and offshoring, focused on the intersection of globalization and the American university. That encompasses several trends, from an increasing focus on study abroad -- currently only about 1 percent of American students travel to a foreign country for a semester or more -- to partnerships with academic institutions in other countries, the proliferation of branch campuses of American colleges in places like Qatar and India, and the influx of foreign students to the United States.
As these trends converge, the result is greater access to Western higher education for students abroad, as well as more opportunities for American students to learn about other countries and cultures. At the same time, some of the committee members worried, the potential exists that universities are educating foreign students who will essentially become "the competition" for American graduates.
So whether students are immigrating to the United States to study or attending classes at branch campuses in their home countries, there is concern that -- amid the complexities of visa regulations and the expansion of opportunities abroad -- more international students are opting either to return home or to stay there in the first place, benefiting their own economies but possibly competing with American students for the same jobs.
Not all agreed with that assessment. Philip G. Altbach, the Monan professor of higher education at Boston College, suggested that "branch campuses will not affect overall student numbers coming here and may … actually improve the quality of students coming to this country because they'll know better what they're getting into and have an exposure already to U.S. higher education.
"If you look at overseas student enrollment over a long time in the U.S., you'll find that very significant numbers have not gone home," he said.
Meanwhile, the well-documented shortage of American students pursuing education in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields, is creating what could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Students avoid the subjects out of a fear that they won't be able to find jobs due to outsourced jobs, forcing universities and employers to look abroad for the best applicants.
Most members of the committee seemed interested in finding the right balance between bolstering American competitiveness and welcoming foreign students, although some panelists insisted it was a false dichotomy. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), however, rejected the premise that universities should embrace globalization and likened attracting foreign students to "a public service to foreigners" paid for by American taxpayers. He went further, questioning whether foreign students are "being trained to take information back, which we have spent billions of dollars to develop in the United States, putting this into their human computer so they can go home" and potentially share the knowledge with a foreign military.
"Bringing in foreign students is a symbol of failure, not something we should be bragging about," Rohrabacher said. (Rep. David Wu, the Democratic chairman of the House Science Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, pointedly stood up during the comments and looked silently in Rohrabacher's direction -- but whether it was a response to the statements or a signal to an aide was not clear.)
The president of Cornell University, David Skorton, acknowledged the concerns about security but flatly rejected Rohrabacher's characterization of universities' relationships with foreign countries and students. "There's no question that what you've raised is a potential concern, there's no question about it," he said, but "it is true that we're living in a global world; it is true that we need the best and brightest to work on [research problems]."
Panelists also pointed out that overseas efforts are planned as revenue neutral; they don't receive state funding, in the case of public institutions, and they pay for themselves. Besides securing separate financing -- either through private donations or pledges from a foreign government -- the panelists also emphasized that they only go where there's a need. This "due diligence" is necessary to justify the effort, they noted, both to university leaders and to people in the host country.
For branch campuses, such as Cornell's medical school in Qatar, a significant factor is "the ability to study certain problems that are best studied in a certain environment or best studied jointly," Skorton said.
Globalization isn't just something that's passively happening to universities anymore, suggested another panelist, Mark G. Wessel, dean of the H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University.
"Today, universities are engaging the issue of becoming global institutions as part of their overall strategies," he said.
Wessel said that increasing globalization has led to a realization in developing countries that education is key. The result, he said, is that countries are adopting the U.S. model of tertiary education. That could be a threat, or it could be a call to action; already, he suggested, "going global is efficient" for universities seeking to expand to emerging markets and better tailor their research and teaching to the new education landscape.
"We're not immune to competition," he warned. "In 20 years, if we do not assiduously pursue globalization, I think we could easily expect half of the [U.S.] institutions ... in the top 20 to drop out," presumably to be replaced by foreign institutions.