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US: Stretching higher education's limits

In a world challenged by persistent economic trials and struggling to keep up with a veritable tower of Babel of innovation and change, 2011 looks poised to stretch the limits of US higher education even further. But most pundits are reluctant to spell out doom and gloom, looking instead to hopeful legislative changes designed to ensure future talent continues to be fostered in its great institutions.

Four leading spokespeople for higher education in the US offer their insights: Robert M Berdahl (pictured), President of the Association of American Universities in New York City; Debra Stewart, President of the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC; Allan E. Goodman, CEO of the Institute of International Education in New York City; and Philip G Altbach, Director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts

"The primary issue facing higher education in 2011," suggests Berdahl, "will be convincing the nation's leaders of the need to maintain investments in the nation's future, particularly in education and research."

In his opinion, other important issues range from encouraging market support for technology transfer initiatives to ensuring federal policies continue to attract top international talent to American colleges and universities.

But, underlying all this, says Berdahl, is the need to sustain a "balance of support across disciplines by government and in our universities, recognising that the social sciences and humanities have much to contribute in addressing national security and other problems facing our nation and the world,"

Focusing on legislative change, Stewart applauds the recent reauthorisation by the Senate of the COMPETES Actas an important step in ensuring that the US guarantees support for research and development in higher education. Signed into law on 4 January by President Obama, the legislation recognises the relationship between investing in graduate education and maintaining a highly skilled workforce that is able to drive economic development and innovation.

"This is an absolutely fantastic development. It is a statement that reinforces the point that, however challenging these economic times are, the US is going to continue to develop talent by providing the resources to do so,." Stewart says.

With regard to recovering international graduate application, admission and enrolment numbers (as measured by the CGS's International Graduate Admissionssurveys), she adds that she is "heartened to see that competitive students are still being attracted to pursue graduate studies at American institutions in the face of great competition from other countries worldwide".

Goodman similarly places his forecast within an international context: "Now, more than ever before, higher education has a global mandate." It is the responsibility of American higher education to prepare students to become global citizens able to work successfully across cultures and countries, he adds.

"Our greatest challenges today and for 2011 are global: climate change, epidemic diseases, cybercrime and violent extremism cannot be solved by or within a single country."

Focusing on the debilitating nature of the deep economic cuts to higher education, Altbach is less confident. Characterising the situation as "extremely serious", he notes that President Obama's stimulus programme only offered temporary respite:

"Now the states are on their own. California leads the way as others face similar budget crises, responding with deep cuts and significant tuition increases to higher education."

He adds, however, that as the stock market slowly begins to recover so will the prospects of private universities that rely on market-dependent endowment funds.

"The sky is not falling," concludes Altbach, "but 2011 will be a year of retrenchment and problems."

* See also: www.whitehouse.gov and www.whitehouse.gov
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