APS News

International News: The Internationalization of Higher Education

Good for Physics and Other Sciences

By Nils Hasselmo

Americans are justly proud of our scientific enterprise and the extraordinary array of research universities that are responsible for a large share of it. Our universities are a critical element in the nation’s economic competitiveness and national security. Yet these very American institutions are becoming increasingly intertwined with universities around the world. And that is a good thing–good for physics and other sciences and good for the US and global economies.

As president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), I have had the opportunity to work with my colleagues to strengthen ties between leading US research universities and leading research universities in Asia, Europe, and throughout the world. It is important that we continue to collaborate –and compete.

Reflecting the spirit of competitiveness, our universities compete not only with each other but also with those of other nations–educationally and scientifically. At the same time, research and education are the beneficiaries of growing international collaboration. And as competition grows, so, ironically, does collaboration. It is important that as a nation, we do all that we can to facilitate not one but both of these trends.

Earlier this year, I participated in an extraordinary meeting in Singapore between members of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) and the AAU. Present were the presidents and chancellors of 21 leading US research universities, several of which are also APRU members, and those of 23 non-US universities, mostly Asian. Members of the Indian research university association also attended as guests.

The meeting illustrated the increasingly global nature of higher education and research – a trend toward internationalization that will benefit physics, the US and the entire world. We discussed this globalization trend and how universities can play an important role in promoting international understanding.

At the meeting, I was struck by two particular developments.

First, the appetite among Asian universities for internationalization of science and education is enormous. From Japan to India, from China to Thailand, research universities are growing, modeled more often than not on those in the US. They want to compete, and they want to cooperate. They want to promote student and faculty exchanges, expand research collaborations, and pursue the extraordinary joint research and other opportunities created by the information technology revolution.

Second, over the past few years, even as the internationalization trend has accelerated, there have been significant cultural and bureaucratic obstacles that the higher education and scientific communities on both sides of the Pacific have been addressing.

One serious cultural difference–or at least a cultural circumstance – is the concern in many of these countries about “brain drain,” the decisions many of their best and brightest scientists and engineers make to remain in the US (or elsewhere) after they complete their educations. Our country has benefited enormously from the contributions of immigrant scientists and engineers. We hope that will continue. Their home countries are not so sure. That creates natural tensions, but thus far those tensions have remained largely below the surface.

Another interesting cultural issue is beginning to emerge. Some US universities are establishing, or considering establishing, their own campuses in China and elsewhere in Asia. While such efforts are generally welcome overseas, there is some ambivalence about US cultural influence. If the internationalization of science and education is to succeed at this level, American universities will need to be sensitive to these fears and learn how to coexist in sometimes challenging environments.

As for bureaucratic barriers to internationalization, these have been especially serious in the US since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US clamped down hard on the visa process, making it extremely difficult for students seeking to study in the US. This led to sharp reductions in the numbers of students seeking to come here. After a lot of hard work by the higher education and scientific communities, the rules and procedures have been rationalized. Despite the problems that remain, it is clear that the government recognizes how America benefits from the inflow of students from abroad, and its representatives have made significant improvements.

Unfortunately, changes in the rules may have come too late to overcome the view among potential students abroad that the US no longer welcomes them here. And now, the federal government is seriously considering making it more difficult for scientists from abroad to conduct research on our university campuses. The higher education and scientific communities are working with federal officials, and we hope we are making them understand the potential impact of the “export control” rules they are considering. The last thing the national or global science enterprise needs is more unnecessary bureaucratic barriers to the international flow of scientists and engineers.

On September 8, the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes, announced that she and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings would convene a University President's Summit “to develop an action plan to encourage more American young people to study abroad and make sure that we continue to attract foreign students to America.” This is a positive step forward, and we will continue working to see that continued discussion is accompanied by sensible policies as well.

I think it is also positive that more American colleges are making international studies a part of the undergraduate experience.

Having recently announced my intention to retire as president of AAU, I find myself thinking back on my own migration to the United States as a linguistics student many years ago. While my career has been based at American universities, my particular field, my personal background, and the very nature of higher education have helped make me an advocate of international collaboration in research and education.

The internationalization of universities is inevitable, and it is going to make our world a better place. It will certainly strengthen science and its ability to address the enormous and complex challenges that mankind faces in the 21st century. This does not mean that developing these complex relationships will be without difficulties. But the society at large, and science in particular, benefit when students of all nations have the greatest opportunities to learn, when scientists of all nationalities have the greatest opportunities to conduct research, and when research universities, regardless of where they are located, have the greatest opportunities to flourish.

Nils Hasselmo is president of the Association of American Universities.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff