Some years ago, I had the privilege of attending my daughter’s graduation from MIT. Among her class were many students born in countries other than America. The commencement speaker that year was Hanna H. Gray, president emerita of the University of Chicago, and the themes that she spoke to then are just as important and resonant today. Namely, that while there may be a desire in society for universities to remain stalwart and unchanging, they benefit hugely by embracing diversity and change.  As she said at the time, “Surely to have a broadened diversity now is a positive improvement and an educational good.” Our institutions, students, and country gain from welcoming students and scholars from other countries. Yet global affairs in 2016 may have made it easy to want to close our campuses and, worse, our minds to people and ideas different from our own.

Although the number of international students in the United States continues to rise, today some states have limits on the number of out-of-state students that can enroll at public institutions. There are reports of alumni of major public university systems renewing calls for caps on out-of-state students because their own children are not gaining admission due, among other things, to the rising quality and competitiveness of international students. Additionally, with almost one-third of international students in the United States coming from China alone, some communities are worried about the implications of one country’s strong representation in the classroom and off-campus. Overseas there are also growing fears that the United States may no longer be the best option for international study following tragic incidences of gun violence. I am struck by the frequency with which I am asked by audiences abroad, “Is it safe to study in America?”

“Examples of increased restrictions on academic movement, exchange, and collaboration can also be seen globally.”

Examples of increased restrictions on academic movement, exchange, and collaboration can also be seen globally. In Turkey, in the wake of a failed coup, all of the country’s 1,577 university deans were asked to resign, 20,000 teachers and administrators were suspended, and travel restrictions were put in place for academics—all actions which may carry significant implications for Turkish higher education as universities reopen for the fall term. Following the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union, there could be, among other things, significant implications for higher education in Europe, including students’ ability to pursue an international education virtually anywhere in the region at low costs. Before Brexit there was also a yearlong debate over migration that resulted in fewer international student visas even as demand for UK education—and its benefits to the local economy—increased. Currently, the United Kingdom finds itself in a curious situation where there are more students undertaking a UK qualification wholly overseas than there are international students in the United Kingdom.

Looking at these trends, it caused me to begin thinking that we are entering an era of “educational nationalism.” Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines nationalism as “a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries.” And the twentieth century reminds us that it does not take very long for such nationalism to impact what is taught and by whom. So often, this process begins with the desire to keep certain people and schools of thought out and then the use of state-funded universities and research funding mechanisms to promote particular schools of thought and ideologies.

“The twentieth century reminds us that it does not take very long for such nationalism to impact what is taught and by whom.”

Yet, there remains a huge market of students who are hungry for an international education. There are currently more than 4 million students pursuing an education abroad, and by 2025, that number is expected to increase to 8 million. Although the United States has been the leading destination for international students for years, many countries are now in a race to attract international students in significant numbers. Australia wants to double in-bound international students by 2025, Egypt aims to quadruple international student enrollment in the next three years, and others (including Canada, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, and Turkey) have goals to attract hundreds of thousands of new international students in the next five to ten years. They see this as a way of projecting their own national influence and also attracting students away from thinking that “made in the USA” is the only mark of educational excellence.

In the end, perhaps there are good and bad nationalisms. Good nationalism is the drive in the higher education sector to build capacity, establish partnerships, and attract international students in the interest of investing not only in each country’s human capital, but also in our global economy. Here in the United States, I think we need to make the case more strongly than ever before that in order for our students to be best equipped for the increasingly global workplace, they need to develop critical skills either through their own international educational experience or by engaging with international students and scholars on US campuses.

“The next generation of American students needs greater exposure to the world we share.”

The next generation of American students needs greater exposure to the world we share.  However, half of them are attending college within fifty miles of home, and based on US national data it is likely that about two-thirds do not yet have a passport. As things stand today, most—about 90 percent—will not study abroad. That’s why the Institute of International Education (IIE) has launched Generation Study Abroad as our moonshot. Generation Study Abroad is a five-year initiative of IIE to mobilize resources and commitments with the goal of doubling the number of US students studying abroad by the end of the decade. The initiative brings together more than 700 domestic and international higher education institutions, employers, governments, associations, and others together to build on current best practices and find new ways to extend study abroad opportunities to tens of thousands of college students for whom traditional study abroad programs aren’t working. If we did nothing and depended solely on the average rate of growth for the past decade we would not reach our target until 2037.

Even if we manage to double the number of students who go abroad, it still means that most students will not have an international experience as part of their education. That makes it all the more important for our students to have at least the chance to attend classes with and hear viewpoints from many different national and cultural perspectives. Listening to and working with international counterparts are critical skills for the workplace after graduation.

“American science and progress also depend on keeping our doors open.”

American science and progress also depend on keeping our doors open. Almost one third of all the Nobel Prizes that go to Americans are received by persons who were born in another country. About half of all new patents registered since 2008 were issued to persons who similarly came from other counties—a proportion that has been consistently increasing since the 1960s.

So I say let’s participate in the “good” nationalism—the competition to globalize our curricula, professors, and the student body. Whether or not we acknowledge it, the United States is already in the midst of a very real competition with other countries to host international students and, more importantly, the world’s future leaders.

This essay is drawn from a presentation made on July 21, 2016, at Rutgers University’s 2016 International Research Conference.

Posted on September 6, 2016