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The Global Trade in Students

SAN DIEGO—Arab students may not realize how valuable they are to universities outside the region.

The intense competition for international students’ brainpower and spending was on display here at the annual meeting of Nafsa: The Association of International Educators, where student recruiters and international officers at universities gathered from around the world.

Many institutions recruit international students for the diversity in perspectives  that they bring. But some institutions are also on the hunt for fee-paying students who can offset the costs of domestic ones.

International students make up about 26 percent of total higher-education enrollment in Australia, 19 percent in the United Kingdom, 13 percent in Canada, 10 percent in New Zealand and 4 percent in the United States.  There were 819,644 international students in the United States in the 2012-13 academic year. The size of the higher-education system in the United States—approximately 4,000 institutions—keeps the proportion of international students down. “We have the capacity to host more,” said Christine A. Farrugia, Senior Research Officer at the Institute of International Education, a nonprofit U.S. organization that runs a wide variety of international programs and that collects many of the popular statistics on international students.

Although reliable global numbers for the university income generated by international students don’t exist, the reality is that most students are supported by family and personal funds or, for the fortunate few,  government scholarships. In the United States alone, 84 percent of undergraduate international students rely on their own or family money, according to Institute of International Education.

On the “export” side, the growth in the number of students leaving India has dipped lately as the value of the rupee has fallen, while Saudi Arabia’s government scholarship programs are powering up. Estimates of the number of Saudi students currently studying outside of the kingdom rise as high as 150,000. Female students who leave Saudi Arabia are usually accompanied by a husband or a brother, due to Saudi customs, essentially doubling the students’ economic value to host countries.

In the countries that import international students, debates often break out between universities who are eager to recruit more students and immigration authorities who are charged with slowing the pace at which foreigners are entering. In the negative view of international students held in some quarters, the foreign students are a burden to local taxpayers and then graduate to steal jobs from citizens.

A session at the Nafsa meeting on the “The Economic Impact of International Students” tried to put such notions to rest.  The session’s panel had representation from Australia, the United States and Germany, all countries where universities are eager to recruit students. The panel tried to make the case that international students are an economic and social benefit to hosting countries.  But panel members discussed the hostile attitudes they sometimes encounter.

The popular German newspaper Die Zeit once ran an article with the headline “Come to Germany? Who’s Going to Foot the Bill?, a skeptical take on the government’s welcoming policies for foreign students. Germany had 218,211 international students in the 2012-13 academic year and its goal is to have 350,000 international students by 2020. According to a representative of the German Academic Exchange Service, which promotes international education and is known in Germany as the DAAD, international students in that country pay no fees for their education. But those students do need to pay rent, buy food, and purchase other services. That spending, one German study found, resulted in an annual benefit to German households of 2,494 euros or about $3,400.  If the students stay on and become employees, they yield an annual benefit of 28,227 euros, or $38,428, as they help the economy grow.

“We really need that skilled labor,” said Miriam Hippchen, a section head for DAAD. The organization is so convinced of the economic benefit of international students that they want to see more spending on tutoring and other support services to increase the proportion of international students who are able to graduate from universities rather than dropping out. The DAAD would also like to see the laws that allow graduates to stay on and join German society strengthened.

The DAAD strategy is not to steal students from their countries of origin, Hippchen said, but to make it easy for them to follow whatever their desires are. “We hope to stay in touch no matter where our alumni are,” she said. Some scholarship programs help students to return home, she said, while others help students to stay in Germany.

The situation is different in Australia, where international students often pay higher tuition than domestic students do. Education services are Australia’s fourth largest export, after iron ore, coal and gold. In 2012, education services created $12 billion in revenue, with the bulk of that in higher education. For one large university in New South Wales, international student fees were 33 percent of the institution’s budget, although that is an extreme situation compared to most Australian universities, according to data presented at the Nafsa session.

In Australia, about a quarter of the workforce was born overseas. Students are the “perfect migrants,” said Kelly Ralston, with Australia Education International. The students fit into the Australian economy, she said, because they are educated in the Australian system, adapt to Australian cultural sensibilities and often graduate with skills that the Australian economy needs.  (Australian immigration authorities and the Australian public have not always synchronized with that academic sentiment, however. Australian public opinion has often turned against immigrants and international students wind up getting swept up in anti-immigrant regulation.)

In the United States, international educators and economists are beginning to use sophisticated modeling to measure the economic impact of international students. A study by Nafsa found that international students support 313,000 U.S. jobs. An international student economic value tool created by Nafsa allows the curious to get detailed answers to questions about the value of international students to the United States.

The competition over international students and measurement of their economic impact is of little comfort to Arab students without money or the ability to find their way through the often bewildering array of admissions procedures and tests that each foreign country requires. In Iraq, many students have great difficulty getting to testing centers to prove their English-language proficiency. Education is a distant dream for Syrians in refugee camps without papers to prove their past educational accomplishments or their legal status.

Some international organizations are teaming up to meet such needs, but the size of such efforts is underwhelming compared to the energy devoted to recruiting students with ready funds.

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