Friday, April 16, 2010

Follow the Dream

International student populations not only enhance their own learning capacities through their exposure, they also enrich host cultures and boost host economies.

In today’s globalized, inter-dependent world the value of cross cultural learning cannot be ignored. Global engagement to broaden perspectives and vision is a necessity for growth and advancement in all fields.

Many South Asian students look towards foreign shores for higher education because the existing infrastructure in their own countries proves insufficient to accommodate the large number of intellectually motivated individuals. Competition for better job prospects compels others since most prestigious national and multinational corporations seek foreign-qualified professionals for their more challenging positions. Armed with new skills, these professionals also play an important role in helping their home countries move forward in scientific advancement.

The host countries benefit significantly from the revenue that international students bring in. More than 10% of the revenue in universities in Australia and New Zealand is believed to come from international students. According to a Time magazine report, Indian students comprise the second largest foreign student group in the US after China, while a 2008 report by The Guardian revealed that “international students contribute an estimated £2.5bn to the UK economy each year in tuition fees alone and an overall contribution of £8.5bn.” Alan Ruby, of the University of Pennsylvania writes that, in Australia, “education is considered second to iron ore and coal as an export earner and worth more than tourism… In British Columbia, foreign students are compared with fishing and trapping and the Vancouver film industry as contributors to the provincial economy.” As a destination of choice, the US still remains at the top of the list. According to James Hosek, who tracks global science and engineering trends at the RAND Corporation, the research papers published by US scientists is double that of their European counterparts, and four times as many as the ‘Asian 10’ which include China and India.

The issue of costs is a huge consideration for students from developing countries because their resources are truly stretched thin. Most US colleges have a yearly expenditure of international students comes to around $50, 000 including tuition, boarding etc. Merit scholarships afford motivated yet financially constrained students a chance to utilize their potential without the stress associated with a loan, but these scholarships are very hard to find and most cover only part of the expense. The World Bank and UNESCO’s joint Task Force on Higher Education and Society in its 2000 report, ‘Higher Education and Developing Countries: Peril and Promise’ raised a valid point: “the cost of overseas instruction, particularly if it takes place in a developed country, is generally extremely high. If the student's home country pays for this education for a large number of students, this can represent a significant fiscal drain. Even if an outside donor is paying for the student's education, study abroad means that funds from donor agencies are being used to pay for a very expensive type of higher education. Such funds could, in principle, be used more effectively to promote quality higher education in the developing country itself.”

Some initiatives in this regard are being taken by collaboration of private sector in developing countries and foreign universities of developed countries to further strengthen the existing programs in South Asia. Building country campuses would accommodate those who cannot travel abroad, without compromising on opportunities for educational excellence. As part of the same idea, India has taken the lead in inviting world renowned universities to strengthen their own educational institutions. York University's Schulich School of Business has been developing educational ties with India for 15 years. The Montreal universities of McGill and Concordia, the University of Alberta and the University of British Columbia are among the schools with large Indian student associations. The Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., is world renowned for its case-writing and case-teaching workshops in India and has signed a partnership deal in 2009 with the Indian School of Business for a new Case Development Centre.

Another related issue of importance for international students is whether they are getting good value for their money. An international education scam unearthed by the BBC in a 2008 report detailed how “the bogus Irish International University (IIU), has been allowed to flourish in the UK - virtually unchecked by the government - for the last seven years.” The IIU maintained a misleading website to project its validity. When faced with this reality, the British Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell insisted, "Our universities are rightly regarded as world class and any attempt by bogus institutions or conmen to tarnish this hard won reputation will not be tolerated”, but the fact that this had been going on for years unchecked is seen by some as simply looking the other way for the sake of the revenue the international students are bringing in. Though steps have been taken by the British government since to prevent further misuse, for many it is already too late.

Exploitation and lack of protection has also been a serious issue between the Indian and Australian governments of late. Racism driven attacks in 2009 on Indian students have caused much tension in the community. Pawan Luthra, chief executive of the local Indian community newspaper, Indian Link, insisted that "If even 0.1% of the $15 billion or so earned by Australia from the sector had been invested in safeguards and [better conditions], this situation would not have occurred ... Coal and iron are commodities, but these are human beings, with feelings and emotions. They need to be protected."

In the last decade despite a very high number of students travelling abroad, not many returned to benefit their home countries. Hence a valid question arises whether it is even feasible to send the top brains abroad when a significant number is lost to the brain drain. UNESCO estimates indicate that about one-third of foreign students studying in the USA do not return to their home countries. Another interesting observation made by the UNESCO and World Bank’s Task Force noted that “study abroad is often a student's first step toward resettling abroad. A country may invest large amounts of money in training students abroad only to find that they very often do not come back. Various schemes have been employed to encourage students to return, but in the end they have met with only partial success. It is apparent that the benefits of this accrue with donor countries, not developing countries.” The report suggested that “countries would benefit by improving their higher education systems sufficiently to attract a greater portion of their students to study in-country”

However, a report in The Christian Science Monitor 2009 quoting a survey at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology introduced a counter observation regarding ‘reverse brain drain’. The author of the report Peter N Scotts asserted that countries like India and China with impressive growth rates are trying to attract expatriates back from the US offering better career opportunities, a better quality of life, and the most valued prospect of being close to family again. The report also implies that the US may not be able to fill the vacuum if the trend continues. The report is supported by another analysis by Michael Finn at the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education in the US which points out that percentage of those staying in US two years after receiving their PhDs has been found to have reduced from 71% between 2001 and 2003 to 66% in 2005. This is causing some concern in the academic circles.

To conclude, the benefits for developing countries from study abroad can be significant in terms of human resource development and scientific advancement, while economic benefits for host countries are also substantial. If issues like expenditures, bogus universities and the student visa delays etc are amicably resolved, not only students, but countries as a whole, would benefit greatly from this experience.

Published: SouthAsia Magazine, as Follow the Dream April 2010.

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