US: American lawmakers promote study abroad

The need for inter-cultural understanding is pressing US higher education lawmakers to seek new ways of increasing the international exposure of the nation’s university students.

Bills to promote studying abroad have met strong support both in the political and academic arenas. The ambitious aim: to increase the number of American students studying abroad in any one year to one million.The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Foundation Act – based on the vision of the late Senator Simon – envisages a national programme that will establish study abroad as the norm, not the exception, for undergraduates.

Not surprisingly, one of the staunchest supporters of the new legislation is the US Association for International Educators, NAFSA. The association’s Ursula Oaks said that although the breadth of support for the proposed legislation was encouraging, there was a long way to go.

“This is still in the initial stages of the legislative process,” said Oaks. “We have bills in both houses of Congress, one of which was voted favourably out of committee in March, but getting the bills passed and voted into law will be a long process for which no-one can really predict a timetable. The spirit of the bills and their broad support among policymakers and the international education community is very encouraging.”

Interestingly, the bills stress the need to study abroad not just for economic reasons. One of their aims is to diversify the locations where students study. Particular reference is made to developing countries.

If the US can manage to get the number of its students going abroad up to a million a year, it will close a gap that is deemed quite significant in our globalised world.

The Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report says some 200,000 American students study abroad for credit each year. This amounts to 1.1% of the total student population whereas in western European countries, which do not offer significant financial incentives to study abroad, the percentage is on average twice as high.

In Norway, a nation that actively supports studying abroad, 14% of students go to other countries in any given year.