In their article “The Futility of Pretending to Certify Virtue,” Liz Reisberg and Philip G. Altbach dangerously advocate for the abandonment of the very individuals they are so eager to protect. The growing number of students outside the U.S. seeking an American education must navigate a policy and protocol wilderness filled with obstacles and potentially treacherous paths. And yes, there are wolves lying in wait, intent on profiting from these students’ vulnerability.
However, the course of action being endorsed — the abandonment of commission-based compensation for third-party recruitment or any effort to bring ethical reform and accountability to the practice — is reckless. Neither the existence of recruitment agents nor students’ dependency on them outside the U.S. will end simply by having universities curtail what are legitimate activities. Rather, it will force recruitment underground, leaving students and their families even more vulnerable to exploitation.
As we all know, efforts at prohibition are usually exercises in futility.
But let’s step back a moment.
Over the last decade, the use of commission-based international student recruitment agencies by colleges and universities has become commonplace. Agents are a fact of life, particularly in Asia, where most international students currently studying in the U.S. originate. Often struggling with limited knowledge of English (if any) and no familiarity with the American education system, these students and their families are confronted with a considerable financial investment with no road map to help guide their decision-making. Many are desperately in need of someone to help assist them with the many steps needed to successfully apply to and matriculate in a U.S. institution. U.S. government resources, such as EducationUSA, simply do not have the geographic reach, nor do they provide the range of services, that most students require.
Recognizing the need for professional standards, the American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) stepped in to fill the breach. Conceived and created by U.S. accredited colleges and universities as a nonprofit Standard Development Organization, AIRC aims to address known deficiencies in the higher education marketplace through the adoption of ethical standards and enforceable certification of recruitment agencies.
AIRC member institutions (which total 135 as of June 2011) must be accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accrediting agency, and they range from community colleges to Ivy League institutions. What these institutions share is a deep commitment to the highest level of professional conduct on the part of the recruitment agencies with which they do business. AIRC has quickly established itself as a robust, internationally recognized NGO that has not only created consensus among practitioners on ethical practice and industry norms, but also made significant strides toward enforcing industry standards.
AIRC is to agents as regional accreditors are to colleges. Member agents pay a significant fee and expend considerable labor to qualify for certification. Afterward, agents must pay a membership fee and maintain ethical conduct to remain in good standing. A good number of agencies have initiated the AIRC process; not all will succeed. While it is rare, candidates have been rejected for certification. It is helpful to think of AIRC certification as akin to completion of a doctoral dissertation, where applicants must withstand several steps of review and external scrutiny. In most cases, the ones left standing at the conclusion of the process are certified as AIRC members.
Unfortunately, none of the AIRC’s efforts have stopped parties within the National Association for College Admission Counseling from proposing new language to its ethics standards that would obligate member institutions to either abandon commission-based international student recruitment or else leave the association. Such an outright top-down prohibition attacks the cure rather than the disease, and is almost certain to result in disingenuous workarounds, rampant ethical violations, and disappointment for countless promising students.
Ironically, those most vociferous against using recruitment agencies — ostensibly out of concern over unethical practices — have been disengaged from regulatory processes already under way and have not offered any practical alternatives.
Enforceable professional standards — voluntarily developed from within an industry — have proven highly effective for improving consumer protection in a relatively short time across many industries, from manufacturing to securities to real estate. Americans invented and perfected these accreditation and certifications processes; this is an area where Americans have a global competitive advantage that should be leveraged.
Not coincidentally, Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher of the State University of New York (SUNY) in June 2010 signed a letter of commitment to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC). First announced by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the World Economic Forum in 1999, and officially launched in 2000, the Global Compact is the world’s largest global corporate citizenship initiative and is designed to foster a new normative consensus around global business practice and ethics.
Since committing, SUNY has led the Global Compact Academic Working Group, which is composed of higher education institutions from six continents charged with developing a global framework for adopting the UNGC principles to higher education.
Why is SUNY doing this? Because we know that public universities have always played an important role in putting ethics into practice. In this same spirit, SUNY is committed to developing an international student recruitment network of ethical independent professional counseling agencies. We will do this in a transparent way, guided by professional standards developed by the AIRC.
Ultimately, it is SUNY’s responsibility to monitor our agents’ activities, seek feedback from recruited students, and correct problems as they occur. It is SUNY’s responsibility to discontinue working with agents that do not meet the standards of conduct to which we ourselves have committed. It is not NACAC’s responsibility to police SUNY’s relationships. NACAC may ultimately advocate walking away from corporate social responsibility, but SUNY takes its principles and responsibilities seriously.
Mitch Leventhal is vice chancellor for global affairs at the State University of New York, senior adviser on academic affairs to the United Nations Global Compact, and co-founder of the American International Recruitment Council.
As major participants and drivers in the process of globalization, Americans have a remarkable ambivalence about the rest of the world. We want to be engaged, loved, respected -- and obeyed. We seek collaboration, but on our terms. We embrace the international difference that most closely resembles ourselves: English speaking, Western European, or Latin American. We speak glowingly of international travel and study abroad, but most of us seek out places that approximate our home environment.
Our colleges and universities encourage study abroad, develop internationalization initiatives, and welcome international students, but American students and faculty flee from the serious study of languages other than English. We teach the literature of our international trading partners in translation because so few of our students can read anything of substance in someone else’s language. And, as we usually do in American academic circles, we worry about all this a lot.
The Institute for International Education publishes statistics and reports through its Open Doors series that give us a picture of how we engage our global colleagues. The good news is that more and more students study and travel abroad than ever before, most students understand that their future requires an engagement with the greater world outside our borders, and just about every college and university has some kind of international commitment in its curriculum.
The bad news is that few students take foreign languages and few institutions require them to do so. Only literature, history, and other area-studies specialists show any interest in the deep understanding made possible through immersion in language, and the numbers of students in these majors does not appear to be rising. Although everyone recognizes that our national security and prosperity demand experts with full proficiency and cultural literacy in a wide range of thinly taught languages, we find neither the national funding nor the student interest in developing these skills.
Often, our leaders in business and industry tell us how important international expertise has become, but they frequently hire well educated native speakers to lead their overseas operations, and offer little or no premium to American managers who have particular language skills. Our students, observing the career paths of highly successful people, learn quickly that while the business world values international travel and living experience, it sees only modest benefit from in-depth understanding of a specific language or culture.
Indeed, specialists in language and culture often fear relegation to mid-level corporate niches while their generalist colleagues move around the company in different jobs in different places, advancing quickly up the corporate ladder. Even our State Department, charged with the obligation of keeping the country tuned to our global relationships, rotates Foreign Service officers from post to post, producing globally aware individuals with great breadth and minimal cultural and linguistic depth.
NAFSA, an organization of international student and study abroad advisers, published a Report of the Strategic Task Force on Education Abroad. As I read it, I am not sure what to make of it. It calls for us to increase study abroad opportunities and asserts that language proficiency matters, but it recognizes that most students want to go where people speak English or where the U.S. already has significant cultural and historical familiarity (Europe and Latin America).
It calls for more engagement but notes that most students want to participate in semester programs rather than yearlong programs. It celebrates a dramatic increase in the number of students seeking study abroad opportunities but finds the numbers too small to meet the need.
Here, as in other reports of similar nature on different topics, we have a worthy objective presented by people who have the right idea and a clear sense of what we should do. At the same time, we have universities and colleges that cannot drive their students to study a language to any degree of proficiency, who cannot enforce any form of required international curriculum, and who squirm uncomfortably as they argue that a semester of study abroad will produce globally competitive leaders.
Perhaps our students and their employers are telling us something we do not want to hear. Maybe language and culture are much less important for global success than the subject competence that adds value to a business or a product. Maybe they know that only those who make language and culture their major area of study can approximate the abilities and skills of an ordinary educated native speaker.
Maybe they recognize that the years of study needed to acquire foreign language fluency in America will yield much less future income than similar effort invested in accounting, finance, physics, computer science or legal studies.
It is not what we want to hear, we internationalists, we specialists in language and area studies, we culture vultures who live and breathe the dramatic variety of the world’s people. It is not what we want to hear, but when our students’ behavior overwhelmingly fails to match our beliefs, we probably should listen more carefully.
“Brain drain” -- the migration of highly trained people from developing countries to wealthy ones -- has for decades depleted the most precious resource of the world’s poorest countries, their skilled and educated citizens. Yet this outflow of talent is not inevitable. Ending brain drain ultimately requires new development models that redress fundamental inequalities within developing countries and between the world’s poorest and richest nations. But as a first step, colleges and universities that recruit foreign talent -- and the foundations and agencies that support them -- can adopt new policies to help stem pervasive brain drain.
First, colleges and universities can direct educational opportunities to academically qualified, community-oriented leaders who would otherwise have limited opportunities for advanced study. For these leaders, the purpose of further study is to acquire the skills and knowledge to improve conditions in their home countries. Second, strong partnerships and collaboration can enhance resource sharing between universities and research institutions in rich countries and their counterparts in the developing world. This enables skilled graduates to find work at home while participating in international networks. And third, educators can take advantage of advances in information and communications technology to increase the impact and sustainability of such programs, since they are no longer limited by a zero-sum “brain-drain” vs. “brain gain” framework but are free to envision strategies that achieve win-win “brain circulation”.
Two individuals who recently completed studies under the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program are showing that talented graduates who studied abroad can have an immediate impact on their home countries. Margareta Tri Wahyuningsih, from Indonesia, completed a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies at the University of Bradford, in Britain, in 2004 and returned to West Kalimantan, a province beset by traditional conflict and sporadic ethnic cleansing. In her current work as a field officer for an international NGO called Search for Common Ground in Indonesia, Margareta is training women to become mediators for peace.
Samuel Duo, a Liberian refugee who had fled to Ghana, completed a master’s degree in agriculture at Pennsylvania State University in 2005. Immediately after graduation, Samuel returned home to open a new office for the Social Enterprise Development Foundation of West Africa in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to help rebuild his war-torn country.
Despite dedicated leaders like Margareta and Samuel, brain drain continues to weaken many developing economies. A comprehensive World Bank report published in October concluded that brain drain increased significantly over the past two to three decades. The stock of educated immigrants in rich countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development rose by about 800,000 annually between 1990 and 2000. This exodus is a major loss for sending countries, especially the smallest and poorest in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean -- some of which have lost more than 50 percent of their educated citizens. Four out of five Jamaican doctors, for example, practice elsewhere, while sub-Saharan Africa has lost 20,000 professionals each year since 1990. More African scientists and engineers work in the United States than on their home continent.
When educated people emigrate, they leave with skills and experience crucial to solving their countries’ critical problems. The migration of doctors leaves poor countries (and eventually other global population centers) subject to the ravages of highly communicable diseases. Public services are deprived of trained personnel, and countries lose revenue from some of their highest-earning taxpayers. Sending countries also lose educated citizens who otherwise might play key roles in developing responsive governments and organizing civil society, often resulting in political instability and regional conflict.
While some researchers have called attention to the net positive effects of “brain drain,” such as remittances sent home and possibilities for increased trade and foreign assistance, the negative effects are much stronger. Brain drain leads to a downward spiral of impoverishment and underdevelopment that drives educated people to seek better opportunities elsewhere.
Universities that recruit foreign students must adopt new strategies to reverse brain drain while maintaining a healthy circulation of global skills and knowledge. One promising approach is to direct international scholarships to deserving individuals for whom the support represents a unique opportunity to improve conditions in their home countries. Typically, prestigious scholarships are awarded to the “best and the brightest” students in poor countries. While academically capable, these students are usually from elite families that have access to high-cost private secondary schools and regard an international degree as an opportunity for individual advancement or a ticket to employment abroad.
Top colleges in the United States learned some time ago that admitting classes of American students from elite private schools did not truly identify the best talent, but while these institutions have become much more adept at identifying diverse applicants among Americans, they don’t do so for students from other countries. Yet more than half of all university students are now in the developing world, and there is a huge, nearly untapped pool of talented people from social groups that are just beginning to acquire postsecondary education.
In developing countries, these first-generation university students are usually from poor backgrounds. They are women who succeed in overcoming cultural barriers against female advancement, or men and women from remote rural areas, ethnic and religious minorities, or people with physical disabilities. Having overcome poverty and discrimination to obtain their education, these students are highly motivated to return to their home countries after studying or working abroad. Their chief aspiration is to apply their newly-acquired knowledge to improve the very conditions against which they themselves had to struggle. And because they are deeply rooted in their communities of origin, their choice to live and work at home is a natural one. Since 2001, the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program has selected more than 2,000 fellows from nearly 100,000 applicants with this background and profile from Russia and 21 developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Among more than 550 alumni, 75 percent are now living and working in their home countries, while almost all of the remaining alumni are finishing doctoral degrees or pursuing additional advanced training under other sponsorship.
Another effective way to redress the fundamental inequalities that lead to brain drain is to strengthen institutional partnerships, collaborative research and teaching, and other mutually beneficial exchanges between universities and research institutions in the United States (and other rich countries) and their counterparts in developing countries. Foundations, along with governments, universities, and the private sector, can support such initiatives.
One innovative example is Washington University in St. Louis’s “International Scholars Academy,” a program that promotes international cooperation among leading research universities with an initial focus on 15 universities in Asia. Another is the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a $350 million initiative sponsored by six of the largest U.S. foundations to strengthen higher education in seven African countries. Such collaborations help to build local institutions while fostering international connections, improving the capacity of developing countries to absorb their most talented graduates but also allowing them to benefit from global networks.
Advances in information and communications technology and improved mobility have helped to shape a new global context for the world’s educated people. For those from poor developing countries, the choice is no longer as stark between emigration to a rich country or a life of intellectual isolation. For example, online access to scientific journals is improving rapidly, projects to digitize the world’s great libraries are well under way, and Internet cafes offer inexpensive access to online resources. In Africa, foreign donors, private companies and governments are investing heavily in satellite-based broadband capacity and new cell phone technology, opening Internet access and leapfrogging antiquated and dysfunctional telephone landlines.
Further, the reduced cost of travel allows professionals to maintain their international ties by spending short periods abroad. Expatriates, for their part, are being invited by their governments and international agencies to work for limited periods of time in their home countries. Virtual travel can also connect professional communities abroad with local colleagues. This is the basis for literally dozens of initiatives like the Digital Diaspora Network Africa. Meanwhile, globalization has created a demand for skilled labor in regional development poles such as Brazil, China, India, and South Africa, as well as in rich western countries. The best brains can now circulate far more freely than even a decade ago.
Taking advantage of this new reality, colleges and universities can help to right the imbalance of intellectual and economic resources that lies at the heart of the brain drain dilemma.