US: How to win the global competition for talent

The United States should aim to double its overall international student enrollments from 625,000 in 2008 to 1.25 million in 2020. This key recommendation is made in a new report, The Global Competition for Talent, published last week by the Centre for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE) at the University of California, Berkeley.

The report's authors John A Douglass and Richard Edelstein underline the strategic importance to the US of investing in higher education in order to continue capitalising on the global pool of mobile students.

Although recent statistics suggest that American colleges and universities are again attracting foreign talent after several years of declining or stagnant enrolments, there is no denying that higher education markets are shifting away from the US - especially in response to the evolving global recession.

These shifts bode badly for long-term economic growth, the report argues, and contrast with a past in which the immigration of talented students and professionals allowed the US to build - and reap economic benefits from - a highly skilled workforce.

As new economies compete more for the international flow of talent and invest more in educational attainment and human capital, the US is poised to lose its competitive edge unless it develops a coherent higher education strategy.

Marlene M Johnson, the Executive Director and CEO of NASFA - the Association of International Educators - has noted that "the number of international students in the US - and whether it is going up or down - matters because it is a surrogate for competitiveness."

In this context, the report focuses on three general goals to help foster entrepreneurial and creative talent in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields and to educate future leaders in the global economy:

* Promotion of higher education as a critical US asset and export.
* Acknowledgement of globalisation as a reciprocal relationship and emphasis on building global networks.
* Increasing domestic enrolments and building programme capacities

Taking into consideration the complex set of variables that influence international education and global labour markets - including the current global economic recession - the study presents data on past and present global trends in international enrolment. With these data in hand, it directs a series of recommendations for the US at the federal, state and institutional levels.

The report recommends implementing a national goal to double the number of international students in the US over the next decade, to match numbers in a group of competitor nations.

Moreover, in keeping with broader national objectives, government and educational policy-makers should move from a logic in which public education is understood as a 'local' asset to one where it is communicated as a national and global asset.

Other recommendations include making visa policies more flexible and increasing financial resources to subsidise and support foreign students.

Colleges and universities should also expand their enrolment capacities and set their sights on higher graduation rates to accommodate needed increases in the educational attainment rate of US citizens.

"Attracting talent in a global market and increasing degree attainment rates of the domestic population are not mutually exclusive goals," the report notes. "Indeed, they will be the hallmarks of the most competitive economies."

Stressing the importance of conceiving higher education as an 'export', Douglass reiterates: "If the US, and the Obama administration, was to focus on a coherent strategy, including marketing, in collaboration with states and key universities, then the US could be an even larger player in the world market for talent."

He adds: "We - political leaders and the higher education community - simply need to wake up a bit. The disaggregate approach which served us well in the past will not work in the future."

Between 2000 and 2006, the countries with the highest growth rates in terms of international student enrolments included New Zealand (725%), the Netherlands (160%), Spain (100%), Italy (96%), Japan (95%) and Australia (75%).

The favourite destinations for international students during this same period remained the US, the UK, Germany and France. By 2006, the US attracted 20% and the EU 38.9% of the global market share.

* The reports full title is "The Global Competition for Talent: The rapidly changing market for international students and the need for a strategic approach in the US".