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U.S. Universities No Longer Only Game in Town


From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

The American University in Cairo has just named its next provost - Lisa Anderson, formerly of Columbia University. In a moment we'll visit the new 260-acre desert campus where she'll work. As we speak, more than 6,000 university students and faculty are getting ready to move out of the heart of Cairo to a new satellite city.


First though, as part of our month long education series, we're going to examine global competition in higher education. After 9/11, there was a decline in the number of foreign students enrolling in the United States, primarily because visa restrictions made it more for them to enter the country. But in the past few years, there's been an increase in applications.

Ms. BETH MCMURTRIE (International Editor, Chronicle of Higher Education): Senior administration officials, like Condoleezza Rice, have really worked hard to get the word out that America is a welcoming place and have told their staffs and consular staffs to treat students with respect and to speed up their applications.

HANSEN: Beth McMurtrie is the international editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, based here in Washington, D.C. She says that although there has been an increase in applications to American graduate schools, the rate of growth is slowing. The reason: global competition.

Ms. MCMURTRIE: Other countries are becoming more aggressive about recruiting foreign students, and some of these feeder countries, such as China and India, which are the top two sending countries, are building up their own higher education system. So what does that mean?

Well, Britain, for example, now takes in about 330,000 foreign students a year and Australia takes in about 200,000. And you could say, well, that's not really a threat because the United States brings in nearly 600,000 students. Well, the United States has more than 2,500 colleges and universities. Australia has 39.


India and China are growing their own systems. India, just to give you a few numbers, is spending about $13 billion to create new universities. China has doubled its higher education budget in the past couple of decades. And it's not just them. Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, they've all worked to try to become higher education hubs. So they're not only sending out students but they're bringing them in.

HANSEN: What does it really matter to the United States that not as many Chinese and Indian students are coming here for graduate studies?

Ms. MCMURTRIE: Well, if you consider the fact that Indian and China send far more students here than any other country and that about, I don't know, half of our graduate seats in science and engineering are made up of foreign students. That would be a big deal if you really saw a significant drop from those countries.

And international students as a whole bring in about $14 billion to this country. Those students not only represent some of the brightest in the minds in these classrooms, but then they may go on to work here and make the scientific advances and start the businesses that keep our economy growing.

And so the effect has been that universities and the government are trying to work harder to keep the students that they would have automatically gotten a few years ago but also make sure that they continue to get the best and the brightest.

HANSEN: Is there a concern that foreign students are actually taking places that American students want?

Ms. MCMURTRIE: It depends on who you ask. If you ask some lawmakers, they're very concerned and they've held hearings on this subject. But if you talk to the deans and the department chairs, some deans are saying that there just simply aren't American students out there who are looking to get a graduate education in science and technology, so therefore they look abroad.

HANSEN: Finally, a touchy subject for some people - the worldwide ranking of colleges and universities. The U.S. News and World Report every year publishes its ranking of American schools. What's happening globally? I mean, does ranking figure into the worldview?

Ms. MCMURTRIE: Well, it is a fascinating phenomenon. I mean, here in the U.S. we're so used to ranking systems. But international rankings is a new phenomenon, and there are two in particular. There's one out of China and one out of Britain that everybody pays attention to and they only came on the scene in the past few years.

And people are not only keenly aware of how their individual universities stack up but governments look at how their entire system stacks up. But I think in reality these rankings aren't so much setting the trend as they are reflecting one. And that is that higher education is becoming a global enterprise. And people and ideas are flowing across borders much more easily, and so it matters where you went to school.

I mean, if you think about it, a generation ago, a student from China or even from Germany or France might go to the college that's closest to them. They would go to graduate school at that college and they'd probably get a job locally. Now, a student from China might get their undergraduate degree in Australia, their graduate degree in the U.S. and then go work in Singapore.

And so it matters. It matters where they go undergrad because they need that leverage to get into grad school and it matters where they go to grad school because they need that leverage to get a good job at a multinational corporation. So it really is a different world.

HANSEN: Thanks a lot for coming in, Beth.

Ms. MCMURTRIE: Thank you.

HANSEN: Beth McMurtrie is the international editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education based here in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.