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US should welcome foreign students

By Colin Speakman | | Updated: 2020-05-14 14:48
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Students from China celebrate their graduation from Columbia University. [Photo/Xinhua]

Last week many nations in Europe marked VE Day, the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Most of us alive today have had the good fortune not to live through a global military conflict. Much of this peace, although punctuated by regional outbreaks of hostilities, is due to ever-increasing economic interdependence between countries and the growth of international education which has encouraged true friendships, based on mutual understanding of the citizens of other countries, often geographically distant and culturally different.

In Europe, the creation of the Common Market in 1957 led to the evolution of today's European Union of 27 nations who have no benefit from military conflict thanks to economic interdependence in the Single Market and many even have the same currency. Peace on a continent that witnessed two world wars should never be taken for granted.

On the education front, the Erasmus project, started in 1987, and building on existing arrangements, has enabled millions of European students to engage in exchange programs in universities throughout Europe. International education between the US and Europe has been around even longer, starting after World War I with what became the Junior Year Abroad and, in modern times, Study Abroad in all forms, including semester and summer or other short term that are the most popular and most affordable. The Institute for International Education's Open Doors Reports show that European nations have been the top four destinations for US students for many decades with China having risen to number five.

Chinese studying in the US also has a long history – dating back to the 1870s, when students from the Chinese Educational Mission studied in New England. Since 1978 reform and opening-up, Chinese students have embraced international education in the USA, Canada, the UK and Australia among others, for full overseas undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. In the last decade, the number of Chinese in American universities and colleges has more than trebled to over 350,000 out of over 660,000 Chinese studying in all foreign destinations.

Economically, globalization has progressed at a pace and many leading economies, as represented by the G20, are heavily connected. China-EU and China-US relations are critical in the modern era. Back in 2009, the then-US president, Barrack Obama, during a visit to China, said he believed that discussions could lay the groundwork for a new era of "sustained cooperation, not confrontation" in a relationship likely to shape the history of the 21st century. In recognition of this importance, the "100,000 strong" project was launched to bring that number of American students to China over four years and China responded with more scholarships to study in the US. At that time, the relationship between China and the West could be characterised as nations rowing in the same boat on the choppy seas of mutual economic challenges, environmental concerns and confronting terrorism.

Today, mutual understanding between nations has never been more important and yet threatens to deteriorate. There is great danger that the citizens of the world's two largest economies will mainly be able to observe each other only through bubbles from their own countries - especially with current hostility by the US administration toward Chinese journalists reporting about American affairs. However, higher education in the US is heavily dependent on those hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and many American universities will advocate for straightforward access for such applicants once international mobility returns. The US Department of State last month issued a statement from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs that said: "We are committed to maintaining and growing the United States as the top study destination for international students so we may continue to build the relations that will ensure our national security and economic prosperity into the future". Put simply, it is in the US own interests to have strong inbound foreign student numbers. If there are restrictions, Australia, Canada, the UK and others stand ready to benefit.

At the moment, international education has turned to online programs, including virtual internships, as a temporary substitute and a future alternative opportunity. There are no visa or travel barriers to those routes, and even G20 leaders have been meeting online. Now, as in the past, the world more than ever needs people-to-people exchanges to rebuild trust and gain true understanding between citizens of these two great nations. Engagement, not isolation, needs to be the way forward, virtually and in person as soon as possible.

Colin Speakman is an economist and an international educator with CAPA: The Global Education Network.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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