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When it comes to the United States in Asia, it seems to be all about the pivot these days. Witness US President Barack Obama’s first trip overseas — to Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar — since winning reelection as further example of a US policy pivot eastward.
Just released data by the Institute of International Education (IIE), however, makes clear that there remains a need and an opportunity for further steps to increase critical business-to-business and people-to-people contacts between the United States and Southeast Asia in particular.
Such interactions are a valuable cornerstone of both commercial and “cultural diplomacy” and can enhance US bilateral relationships throughout the region. Yet, what’s gotten little attention is the stagnant to declining number of students from Southeast Asia studying at US universities.
That’s a trend that needs addressing and could well be part of a more robust pivot or “rebalancing” of US engagement in Asia that moves beyond reinvigorated diplomatic and defense cooperation between the United States and its Pacific allies.
Over the past decade, the United States has developed stronger and stronger ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as well as with individual member nations. This can and should be built on. One example of this strengthened engagement: US President George W. Bush named the first US ambassador to ASEAN — a post that was made resident in Jakarta under President Obama.
Education is another area to build on, with concrete steps needed to encourage more students from Southeast Asia to study in the United States and vice versa.
IIE data shows that for now, the overall numbers are stagnant, with 46,063 students from Southeast Asia, including Timor Leste, studying at US universities in 2012. This is for the most part unchanged from the prior academic year, when the IIE reported 46,020 students studying in the United States. There is though tremendous variation by nation.
According to the IIE’s “Open Doors 2012” report on international education exchange, of the ASEAN nations, Vietnam leads the group with 15,572 students studying in US undergraduate and graduate programs. That’s up 5 percent from the year before.
In contrast, the number of students from Thailand has fallen 7 percent to 7,626 students in that same period. For Singapore, the number increased 4 percent to just over 4,500 students pursuing university level studies in the US.
Why the relatively unchanged overall number of Southeast Asian students studying in the US? Uncertain economies in parts of Asia and in the US may well be factors. In contrast, the number of Chinese students in the US continues to boom with now more than 194,000 reported in US graduate and undergraduate programs. That’s more than 25 percent of the now record high number of 764,495 international students in the US.
At the same time, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and New Zealand are increasingly becoming popular choices for students in Asia, as these countries make concerted efforts to attract international students. China is also aggressively pursuing students from the region.
Recognizing the “soft power” value of international education, China is steadily working to increase its number and share of international students — especially those from ASEAN member countries.
In 2011, more than 30,000 students from ASEAN nations studied in China. That’s a number that China plans to grow to 100,000 by 2020 under its “Double 100,000 Students Mobility Program”. That program also envisions 100,000 Chinese students studying throughout the ASEAN countries. If this program reaches its goal, vastly more students from Southeast Asia will be studying in China than in the US.
To lure students, some governments and universities also are designing programs that cut down on paperwork and wait times by having the student visa and academic enrollment processes work more in tandem.
A 2011 Australian Education International (AEI) survey of some 1,330 students drawn from six Asian nations sheds light on the impact of such efforts. Overwhelmingly, students ranked Australia’s procedures and approval waiting time as more efficient and faster than those of the US. Canada and the United Kingdom also received higher rankings than the US.
Here are three simple suggestions for a way forward to change present trends. First, the United States should take a lesson from others. The US should roll out pilot programs that harmonize the university enrollment and student visa application processes in order to reduce wait times and uncertainty, as Australia has done.
The US student visa and application processes are separate procedures for international applicants — one managed by the US State Department, the other by individual universities.
A student who has been accepted to a US university may well find a visa comes too late, if at all, to begin studies on time.
Second, the US Department of State’s “Education USA” activities should further highlight the wide variety of US educational opportunities available. The US has internationally recognized state colleges that would be the envy of many nations and would welcome more international students, including from Southeast Asia.
Third, US policymakers should recognize that international education is a competitive advantage and must be included as a key component of the US policy pivot to Asia. An inability to adapt to this reality is costing the United States opportunities to reenergize valuable cultural linkages to Southeast Asia today that could well pay dividends tomorrow on both sides of the Pacific.
Curtis S. Chin is a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok. Jose B. Collazo is a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia.