WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Agency for International Development on Thursday reversed itself on what just days earlier had seemed to be a plan to slash funding for development-oriented partnerships between American universities and institutions abroad. But agency officials also made clear that they would no longer work with the association-led compact that oversees the efforts when the current contract expires in 2015, preferring instead to work directly with individual colleges and universities.
International education advocates bristled at the news this week that U.S.A.I.D. planned to cut by 80 percent its 2014 funding for Higher Education for Development, which is in the midst of a five-year contract to administer 41 partnerships in 25 countries involving 93 institutions. The higher education associations that manage HED were told in an Aug. 7 e-mail that its budget would drop to $1 million from $4.9 million, which association officials warned would force the premature shuttering of many of the partnerships.
They made that case to A.I.D. officials in no uncertain terms in recent days, including at a meeting between officials from the agency and higher education association leaders on Thursday.
In a letter sent to those same associations after Thursday's meeting, Eric G. Postel, assistant administrator for the agency's Bureau of Economic Growth, Education and Environment, said that U.S.A.I.D. "intends to honor our commitments to the current 41 partnerships under the HED program." In the letter, Postel gave his "assurance that U.S.A.I.D. will do everything possible to continue the partnerships to their scheduled end dates with minimal disruption to program activities."
"Our commitment reflects USAID's respect for the efforts already expended under these partnerships, the importance of good-faith relations between U.S. and partner country institutions, and USAID's commitment to higher education institutions and their role in development," Postel wrote. (A U.S.A.I.D. spokeswoman seemed to offer a caveat of sorts in a statement late Thursday night, when she said via e-mail: "All discussions with ACE/HED regarding programming and budget levels are ongoing at this time, and no final decisions have been made.")
While the main point of Postel's letter surely relieved the college leaders who receive funds through the HED partnerships, the letter contained less-welcome news as well. First, U.S.A.I.D. said that the agency would work to reduce by 15 to 20 percent the $11 million that HED plans to spend on operational costs between now and 2015.
More importantly, Postel also confirmed what many higher education officials had suspected: that the agency would not renew its contract with HED when it expires in 2015. The reason, he said, is that "[w]e wish to be working more closely with your universities in a direct relationship."
M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (and himself a former head of U.S.A.I.D., under President Reagan), said in an interview Thursday that the agency's change of heart -- "with A.I.D. agreeing to fulfill contracts in term and tenure and amount" -- was a satisfactory outcome, given the events of recent days. That will ensure that the current partnerships -- and their university participants -- have no immediate disruption.
Longer term, McPherson said that the formal notice of the end of the contract for Higher Education for Development was not unexpected.
"A.I.D. has a long history of both using intermediaries and not using them, and both can work," he said. "The biggest reason they've used places like H.E.D. is because it's an easy mechanism for the agency to engage universities, but there's some advantage to the agency [to work directly with institutions] because they learn more directly that way."
A more decentralized approach can work just fine for colleges and universities in the United States (and their partners elsewhere in the world) -- as long as U.S.A.I.D. puts in place "new mechanisms that can work with sufficient speed and efficiency" in lieu of H.E.D., McPherson said.
"What will not be a good thing is if you end up having fewer relationships [between American universities and institutions elsewhere] because you don't have the mechanisms to make it happen."