A U.S.-Korea education pivot

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A U.S.-Korea education pivot

Perhaps it’s just a stereotype, but Korean and Korean mothers’ passion for education is well-known. What’s gotten little attention, however, is the stagnant to declining number of Koreans studying at American universities.

That’s a trend that needs addressing and could well be part of a more robust “pivot” to Asia by the United States. Beyond reinvigorated diplomatic and defense cooperation between the United States and its Pacific allies - underscored by U.S. President Barack Obama’s making Asia the destination of his first international trip since winning re-election - there remains a need for further steps to increase critical business-to-business and people-to-people contacts.

Such interactions are a valuable cornerstone of both commercial and “cultural diplomacy” and can enhance the U.S.-Korea relationships in subtle, wide-ranging and more sustainable ways.

Over the last 60 years, the United States and Korea have developed an enduring partnership that can and needs to be built on. Education is one possible starting point, with concrete steps needed to encourage more Koreans to study in the U.S. and likewise to add to the small but growing number of Americans studying in Korea.

This would help address a trend that has become apparent the last few years. While Korea ranks only behind China and India as the host country of international university students in the United States, the number from Korea is relatively stagnant or in slight decline, hovering around 72,000 to 73,000 students.

Just released data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) makes this clear. According to the IIE’s “Open Doors 2012” report on international education exchange, there are now 72,295 Koreans studying in U.S. universities. That’s a slight 1.4 percent drop from the year before. In the prior academic year, the number of Korean students in U.S. universities increased 1.7 percent, and in the year before declined by 3.9 percent.

The IIE study also reports that Korea was only the 23rd-most-popular destination for U.S. study-abroad students, with about 2,500 U.S. university students studying in Korea during the 2010-11 academic year. While small, that number was up 16.4 percent from the year earlier.

Why the relatively unchanged number of Korean students studying in the United States? Uncertain economies in Korea and the United States may well be factors. 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.

To lure students, some governments and universities are also 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 United States. Canada and the United Kingdom also received higher rankings than the United States.

The United States can no longer afford to ignore the success other nations have had in recruiting international students, and the “soft power” advantage it gives these nations in winning the “hearts and minds” of tomorrow’s generation.

Here are three simple suggestions for a way forward.

First, take a lesson from others. The United States 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 U.S. student visa and application processes are separate procedures for international applicants - one managed by the U.S. State Department, the other by individual universities. A student who has been accepted to a U.S. university may well find a visa comes too late, if at all, to begin studies on time.

Second, the U.S. Department of State’s “Education USA” activities should further highlight the wide variety of U.S. educational opportunities available. The United States has internationally recognized state colleges that would be the envy of many nations and would welcome more international students, including from Korea. Community colleges should also be actively promoted abroad. They provide affordable and quality technical and vocational education, and are a proven pathway to four-year universities for those students interested in furthering their education.

Third, U.S. policy makers should recognize that international education is a competitive advantage and must be included as a key component of the U.S. policy pivot to Asia. An inability to adapt to this reality is costing the United States opportunities to re-energize valuable cultural linkages in Korea and throughout Asia today that could well pay dividends tomorrow.

More than ever, it’s a time for a business and education pivot by the United States to Korea and throughout the Asia-Pacific region. That’s something that the bilateral relationship, not to mention all parents, Korean or otherwise, will benefit from.

* The author is a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology. He served as U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank (2007-2010) under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. This column was co-authored by Jose B. Collazo, a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia. Follow him on Twitter at @josebcollazo.

by Curtis S. Chin
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