By Professor Joan Dassin*

International students offer a glimmer of hope in the current Trumpian, post-Brexit era.  Despite the rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric and newly restrictive visa policies in some Western countries, the demand for international higher education remains strong.  In 2015 4.6 million globally mobile students were studying abroad, a nearly five-fold increase from the late 1970s.

The United States, the United Kingdom, China, France and Australia dominate the market, hosting two-thirds of all international students.  China is the breakout player. 2016/2017 was the eighth consecutive year in which China was the leading sending country to the U.S, with over 350,000 students. China also hosts 10% of all inbound students, in third place among host countries after the U.S. and the U.K.  Overall, East Asia accounts for more than one million students studying abroad, nearly a quarter of the total number.

Why is international education, and the scholarship schemes that support it, so enduringly popular?  One answer is that not only students but sponsoring governments also benefit.  Paradoxically, international education serves nationalist agendas.  The 72-year-old Fulbright program is a case in point.  Initiated in 1946, the Fulbright program was “one of the really generous and imaginative things that have been done in the world since WWII,” as historian Arnold Toynbee observed. Yet the U.S. government didn’t fund it directly, at least in the early years.  Senator Fulbright cleverly added a two-page amendment to the Surplus Property Act of 1944 that allowed the U.S. State Department to trade surplus war material for “intangible benefits,” including educational exchange programs. Funding for the program would not appear in the U.S. federal budget until the Fulbright Hayes Act of 1961.

Secretary Powell Meeting the First Iraqi Fulbright Students in the Treaty Room at the State Department. State Department photo by Michael Gross.

Some 380,000 Fulbright awards covering 160 countries later, we can state with assurance that those two pages have served the United States well. Billed as educational exchanges, the underlying ideology of both outbound and inbound scholarships was more of a one-way street to benefit America.  Hence foreigners in the U.S. would imbibe American culture, while Americans abroad would advance American values overseas. Senator Fulbright himself said: “What a fine thing it would be if Mr. Stalin or Mr. Molotov could have gone to Columbia College in their youth.” (The same could be said of Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre and the Indian Dalit leader and constitutionalist Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, both of whom attended Columbia and had a major impact on their home countries.)

The Fulbright program was born at a moment of unbridled optimism in the United States.  Emerging as the uncontested hegemonic power after World War II, the U.S. deemed that re-building Europe and Japan would be directly in its national interest. (The Fulbright program mirrored these priorities, with early awards concentrated in Europe and Asia.)  President Truman’s 1948 Inaugural Address articulates a vision of a post-war world in which the U.S. spreads prosperity and democracy throughout the world.  The same address launched the U.S. commitment to ‘development’ in the ‘Third World, a moment when, as development scholar Arturo Escobar astutely observes, “two-thirds of the world suddenly became poor.” Conveniently, the U.S. could address these problems with its superior science and technology, while at the same time opening new export markets and keeping the Soviet Union at bay. 

In addition to Fulbright, other international scholarship programs also promoted their sponsors’ national or geopolitical interests.  The Commonwealth Scholarships began in 1960, reflecting the post-colonial aspirations of the Commonwealth, at the time a group of 52 mostly former British territories. The German Academic Exchange Service DAAD, founded much earlier in 1925, had the explicit aim of promoting internationalization of German universities and advancing German studies and the German language.

So what is the role of educational exchanges – a classic form of ‘soft power’– in today’s hard-edged world?  Studying the history of international scholarships, two recent books explore their adaptability and diversity. Recent schemes like the New Colombo Plan provide students with skills and experience needed for today’s multifaceted, multicultural workplace; privately funded programs such as those sponsored by North American foundations such as Gates,

Ford, and MasterCard enable deserving students from marginalized communities to gain the benefits of quality higher education in their home countries, broader regions or the world at large.  Such programs generate a flow of people and ideas that are ‘win-win’ for the home and host countries, not to mention the actual awardees. 

This positive dynamic is more powerful than Mr. Trump’s phantom border wall with Mexico or even his proposed 71% funding cut for the Fulbright program. History demonstrates that the flow of people and ideas can be temporarily diverted but not ultimately stopped. Senator Fulbright understood this reality in his time.  We need to insist on it again in ours.

Professor Joan Dassin

* Professor Dassin is Professor of International Education and Development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, Brandeis University. In 2017 she was awarded the Heller School Teaching Award. Professor Dassin has held academic posts at Colombia University, Oxford University, Fordham University and Amherst College. Professor Dassin was the founding Executive Director of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program (IFP), a global scholarship program that operated from 2000 to 2013. She is also the recipient of three Fulbright Scholar Awards for teaching and research in Brazil.

Professor Dassin recently co-edited a book on International Scholarships in Higher Education: Pathways to Social Change, published by Palgrave MacMillan in October 2017.