US student mobility: cultural enrichment and national security

Record numbers of US students are studying abroad. The Institute of International Education‘s latest report, Open Doors 2007 (IIE), provides details of the 150% increase in US student mobility over the last ten years with an 8.5% rise in 2005-2006. Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education have detailed coverage of the findings.

Looking below the headline figures a number of features become clear. As the US Department of State website highlights, most students take part in programs of eight weeks or less, just over a third stay for an entire semester and only 5.5% are away for a year or more. Europe is the most popular destination but there have been big jumps in numbers going to Latin America (particularly Argentina, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica and Ecuador), Asia (in China, India, South Korea, Vietnam and Hong Kong numbers have seen large increases), Africa (Tanzania saw a 19% increase ). In the Middle East students have been increasingly mobile into Israel and Jordan.

Looking at the numbers and destinations it becomes hard not to see a pattern emerging. US students are being funded through IIE administered programs into countries with particular affinities with the US. In addition, one new source of funding is the US Department of State’s National Security Language Initiative program which targets mobility for learning Arabic, Chinese, Hindi and Persian and other ‘critically’ needed foreign languages.

The rhetoric which surrounds the celebration of these trends is familiar. So Condoleeza Rice says that mobility:

Expands young people’s opportunities, enriches their lives, and demonstrates our respect for other cultures

While Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes is especially proud of IIE programs which:

By reaching out to students of more modest means, has produced truly remarkable gains in the numbers of US citizens from minority communities who can now aspire to the life-changing experience of study abroad.

If we draw together a number of features of US student mobility patterns we can start to ask some important questions about the objectives which are served by mobility. The top three majors of US students studying abroad are the social sciences, business and management, and humanities, so why are math, science and technology majors nowhere near as mobile.? The majority of students follow well worn paths to countries with cultural, economic and political affinities with the US but is there a growing trend towards mobility into countries with developing importance for US interests? Students still tend to be mobile for very short periods of time; how does the dynamic of State Department funding for critical language (and cultural) understanding interact with the necessarily brief exposure of less than eight weeks?

With hard power and soft power increasingly on the march, it seems that we need to keep on thinking about what is at stake when we talk about student mobility. Mobility is always from somewhere to somewhere and for some purpose. US student mobility patterns suggest that we need to keep looking at the cultural and political in addition to the economic. There is a link between cultural enrichment and national security and EU policy in Central Asia suggests it is a link which is not only made in the US.

Peter D. Jones

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