‘Soft power’ potential of international students lost

There is a certain assurance that the comparative international education community holds for international students. Overall student intake numbers are lauded as ‘wins’ for nations.

The United States and other Western nations are often praised for their lion’s share of foreign student numbers, while the rest of the world continues to strategise ways in which to catch up with the current world leaders.

Competition is so fierce in part due to the billions of dollars the industry now accounts for. But from a governmental standpoint, it is the ‘soft power’ fostered from these students that is so sought after.

‘Soft power’ is the ability of a country to get another country to do what it wants through co-option and attraction rather than by force.

The attractiveness of a nation’s education system boosts soft power capacity: when students go and learn in host countries, they gain a better cultural understanding and familiarity. While the West leads in this category, the rest of the world is attempting to catch up with extensive investment in attracting international students.

China in particular is making a concerted effort. With Confucius Institutes well established across the world, the Chinese education sector is looking to become the second largest student importer by 2020. China’s leaders have even talked about their global soft power push, which was mentioned in public speeches on occasion by former president Hu Jintao.

However, the strategies and analysis of international student numbers mostly stops with the student going to a country.

But while total foreign student intake numbers are certainly important, they only paint half the picture. Once students arrive, it is their experience while in the host country that will ultimately shape their perceptions – and not all of them are positive.

Problems with integration

Recently, Michaela Cross’ story of her study-abroad trip to India polarised readers on CNN, as she described how sexual harassment in her so-called ‘woman’s hell’ led to a mental breakdown.

An experience like this one certainly does not endear the student to the host country and a simple total of overall student intake does not capture this at all.

Likewise, the East Asian giants – China, Korea and Japan – have had their share of integration issues as their intake of foreign students has increased. These highly homogeneous societies can be especially difficult to mesh into, but language is also a major barrier for international students.

Language problems might be even more proscribed in this region, as many foreign students may not necessarily be fluent in the local language. All English-language programmes have been popular in these countries recently, with their pushes to attract coveted international students.

This means students do not always come prepared linguistically to intertwine with locals. Likewise, they may leave lacking language expertise, as the education they received and the environment surrounding them was tailored for English speakers.

This problem is not just germane to non-Western countries.

A recent survey out of the University of Indiana, sparked by a racist video that went viral, found that Chinese students – the largest segment of international students worldwide – have trouble integrating into the larger student population, according to the e-magazine Tea Leaf Nation. The results from Indiana are not uncommon.

In one study, Dr Elisabeth Gareis of Baruch College found that 40% of international students polled in a 2012 study had no close American friends and would have liked to develop more meaningful relationships through domestic interactions.

The same study found that East Asian students had the most difficulty integrating. This is important as the region, especially Korea and China, has led the world in exporting its students.

A similar study on international students in the UK by Nicola Peacock of the University of Bath and Neil Harrison of the University of the West of England yielded comparable results and suggested there was a “passive xenophobia” when it came to students who were isolated or considered most different.

Students’ trouble with English was a key factor in their isolation, which was reported by foreign and domestic students alike.

Change won’t come easy

Universities already have programmes and organisations designed to help student immersion. Local university student clubs are supposed to help alleviate integration issues.

However, isolation may also be attributed to these clubs and unions. For instance, if a Chinese student is only involved with the Chinese student union, and not the wider student body, most of their interactions will be with other Chinese.

Creating a more robust programme is not an option as academic institutions are mostly under considerable financial stress already. Governments should step up to facilitate this need if they truly value soft power. With the massive investment and focus into these kinds of initiatives, it only makes sense to maximise that investment.

Even beyond soft power, international students are a large part of society. For instance, in the US the population of foreign students is greater than that of four states: Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming and Vermont.

A group this large and robust warrants focus, instead of leaving their experiences completely up to chance.

* Ryan M Allen is a representative of the American International Education Development Council, a non-profit organisation that connects educators in China to counterparts in the US. He is also an adjunct lecturer at Berkeley College and is currently researching politics and education at Teachers College-Columbia University in New York.