Anxious international student advisers had an awful lot of questions Thursday about SEVIS II, a revamp of the U.S. government’s Web-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System scheduled to launch in September 2009.
Among them: “Should I consider retiring before 2009?”
The largest-ever NAFSA: Association of International Educators  conference, which has attracted more than 9,000 people to Washington, D.C. this week, continued Thursday with some highlights including a forum with the U.S. presidential candidates’ foreign policy advisers, an update on trends in higher education in China, and a discussion of the challenges facing Iraqi students in the U.S.
And of course the session on SEVIS, the database for tracking international students. There Ann Balough, the Student and Exchange Visitor Program’s team leader for SEVIS I and II, assured the audience (apparently not convincingly to all) that “SEVIS I is Fred Astaire and SEVIS II is Ginger Rogers. She’ll be able to do everything backwards and in high heels.”
SEVIS II, Balough said, “is going to grow more gracefully. It’s going to be built from the ground up to be modified.” Booz Allen Hamilton, a strategy and technology consulting firm, won the contract to develop the system this month -- and its charge includes improving efficiency, simplifying interfaces and enhancing usability.
In the meanwhile, potential users aren’t shy about their concerns. Although many questions posed Thursday were technical in nature, others seemed to convey distrust as to whether the federal government would keep university officials apprised of changes in time to prepare for a system overhaul (“We know we have had a bad habit of surprising you on occasion with things. We’re going to try not to do that,” Balough said in response to one inquiry) and questions about whether a change in the technology could herald changes in regulation or policy. When asked, for instance, whether the new SEVIS would lead to an increase in student fees -- in April the government proposed doubling the student visa fee to $200  -- Balough said no, but that SEVIS II’s development is among the reasons for the already announced hike.
The Presidential Candidates' (Aides) Speak
Advisers to the three candidates still in the running for the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations appeared on a panel that was nominally about international higher education. But as might be expected in a campaign that thus far has largely shunned higher  this panel, too, focused much more on foreign policy than on postsecondary education.
The session's moderator, Moisés Naím, author and editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, did what he could to tie the issues that the candidates' advisers most wanted to talk about -- security, competitiveness, and the like -- to education.
Asked by Naím about how their candidates would restore America's diminished standing in the world, which he said had played a role in damaging the international competitiveness of the country's higher education institutions, Mara Rudman, an aide to Sen. Hillary Clinton, said she viewed student exchange -- both into and out of the United States -- as key.
Denis McDonough, with the Barack Obama campaign, emphasized Obama's support for the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act, which would authorize $80 million annually for a new foundation that would award grants to promote access to study abroad, and for a plan for a $2 billion global education fund. He said it was important to for the United States to help educate people around the world, especially in the Muslim world, "so we're telling our story directly in local language rather than having our story distorted and spun and told about us,” he said.
Richard Fontaine, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. John McCain, repeated McCain's frequent assertion that “the war on terror is not going to be won through military means alone.”
“Things like scholarships in the end are likely to be more important than bullets,” he said.
Fontaine said that people who come to the United States to get advanced degrees should be allowed to work in the country while pursuing those degrees. In addition, McCain has said that students at military service academies should be required to study abroad to improve knowledge of the “strategic areas” in the world.
Naím also asked what the candidates would do for resources for study abroad. McDonough, while reiterating Obama's co-sponsorship of the Simon Act, said that "our shared national challenge has to be to see this as a national security priority and as such, it can't just be one piece of legislation but rather a whole change of administration attitude.”
Obstacles (and Opportunities) for Iraqi Students
A session on the challenges facing Iraqi students seeking a higher education described many, but ended on a hopeful note with a forthcoming opportunity.
A quartet of panelists -- Anne Schneller, coordinator of sponsored student programs in the International Studies and Programs Office at Michigan State University; Paul Greene, assistant dean of international initiatives at Boston University; A. Hadi Al Khalili, cultural attaché at the Embassy of Iraq; and Tamara Jafar, senior at Harvard University and former intern at the Iraqi Embassy -- all spoke on the challenges facing Iraqi students wishing to study in the United States.
Jafar focused on the obvious visa barriers that students face, as well as their lack of information about how to apply to American colleges. Greene discussed the confusion created by the disconnect between the Iraqi and American educational systems, which can lead to dashed expectations on the part of students.
While the session emphasized the impediments that many students face, Khalili offered a bright ray of hope. He offered a bare-bones preview of a new program, which is expected to be detailed today at the NAFSA meeting, in which Iraq's new prime minister has proposed sending 10,000 Iraqi students to study in the United States or Canada, at a cost of $750 million.
Opportunity in China
And, switching over to another part of the world, panelists at a session Thursday afternoon presented an overview of trends in educational globalization in China. In one particularly interesting set of statistics, Jun Fang, the first secretary for China's American embassy, showed that the number of government-sponsored students and scholars going abroad climbed from 50 in 1978 to around 3,000 in 1980-2004, up to 5,580 in 2006 before jumping to 10,000 in 2007.
He attributed the recent jump to a new five-year program started in 2007 that expanded government sponsorship beyond scholars to include postgraduate students as well. Before, by and large, he explained in an interview, the government didn’t sponsor students for fear they wouldn’t return. “Now we are more confident. There is more opportunity in China.”