Many students move across national borders to attend university.  Although the number of these globally mobile students is small compared to the total number of students enrolled in higher education, there numbers are increasing.

But the patterns are changing, with more regional and south-south mobility.

The role of scholarships in promoting these new patterns of student mobility is gaining attention by researchers and development aid alike. My guests today, Joan Dassin and Aryn Baxter, have recently contributed to a new edited collection entitled International Scholarships in Higher Education: Pathways to Social Change, which was edited by Joan Dassin, Robin March, and Matt Mawer.

Joan Dassin is a Professor of International Education and Development and Director of the Masters Program in Sustainable International Development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Aryn Baxter is an Assistant Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Director of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at Arizona State University (ASU).

Citation: Dassin, Joan & Baxter, Aryn, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 99, podcast audio, December 11, 2017.

Transcript, Translation, and Resources:


Will Brehm  2:05
Joan Dassin and Aryn Baxter, welcome to FreshEd.

Joan Dassin  2:08
Thank you very much, Will. We’re delighted to be here.

Aryn Baxter  2:10
Thanks for having us.

Will Brehm  2:12
So what is the current landscape of international scholarships in higher education?

Joan Dassin  2:18
I think the best way to think about that issue is to look at international higher education more generally. And what we’re seeing over the last decade or so is a very significant increase in the number of globally mobile students – somewhere north of 4 million or so, according to the latest statistics. So that’s the big picture. But scholarships, whether they’re funded by governments or private organizations, only support a very small percentage of this larger population of globally mobile students.

Will Brehm  2:58
So what is that percentage? Do you know?

Joan Dassin  3:00
It’s roughly about 5%, according to the statistics that we have. It’s a little hard to measure because the sources of data come from many different organizations and governments; it’s a very fragmented picture.

Will Brehm  3:18
And are there any other institutions giving scholarships to international higher education students other than governments or the non-profits?

Joan Dassin  3:30
Typically what you see our national governments or private foundations which may operate internationally. The big US foundations are well known, like the Ford Foundation or MasterCard, based in Canada, MacArthur Foundation, and so on. But those are your major sources of scholarship funds. Sometimes private individuals will fund students, other kinds of civic organizations, for example, the Rotary Club, which has many international branches, does gives scholarships to international students in selected countries.

Will Brehm  4:11
So if 5% or so, roughly 5% of these 4 million students are on scholarship, that means roughly 95% are fee paying students. So this must be a huge source of income for some of these universities that are receiving students.

Joan Dassin  4:27
Oh, yes. And international education is very big business, which, by the way, is one reason why colleges and universities in the United States are very concerned about current proposals under the proposed tax plan. For example, to make graduate students’ stipends and intuition waivers taxable. That could really cut into mobility issues. The last figures that I saw were, for the US alone, something like an income of about $37 billion represented by international students on an annual basis.

Will Brehm  5:07
Wow, that’s so much money.

Aryn Baxter  5:09
And that would be similar in the United Kingdom and in Australia, Canada. Those countries are also reporting billions in revenue from education and related services.

Will Brehm  5:21
So is this the movement of international students generally from parts of the world – I don’t know, Asia or Africa – to countries like Australia, Canada, the US? Is that usually the direction of mobility?

Aryn Baxter  5:37
Yes, so the majority, around 48%, the receiving countries are in Europe. Some of the largest include the UK, Germany, France. There’s also a pretty large percentage, around 21%, in the United States, although I would say that the numbers in other regions are also growing. So for instance, recently, there’s been a pretty significant increase in the percentage of international students studying in Asian countries – that’s up to about 7%. Also, the Middle East has seen considerable growth in the number of students that they’re receiving.

Joan Dassin  6:19
Yes, and just to give you some idea, these patterns, they do trace old colonial patterns. So that people in Anglophone countries go to either Commonwealth countries or come to the US. Francophones go study in France and so on. And it’s true that the global flows, student flows, are typically south to north or east to west. That is changing, though, particularly with China, which is now the largest net exporter of students – over 50% of all globally mobile students are Chinese. China has eclipsed India and South Korea, which were among the biggest exporters. Maybe a generation… Japan for sure. So China really owns this space at the moment, and I just saw some recent data about the US that in terms of destination countries for American students going overseas, China is now in sixth place – the only non-European country in that in that list, which includes the UK, Italy, Spain, France, and Germany, and then China is coming right along. So China definitely sees itself as a major education hub, both for sending students, but also receiving students, which can really change the equation.

Will Brehm  7:47
I mean, personally, I did my PhD at the University of Hong Kong. So I was one of these American students that went in the reverse direction.

Joan Dassin  7:56
Right. Well, you were fairly atypical at that point, I think, but certainly China is making a big push. And in this book that we just recently published; we do have a case study of the Chinese government scholarship program. And the main point in that chapter is that China is thinking long term, and this reliance on international education for its best and brightest students, is part of a 20-year vision of Chinese development.

Will Brehm  8:30
And so how do the scholarships play into that on their end?

Joan Dassin  8:34
That they use them very consciously to develop talent and home country expertise, particularly in science and engineering fields, where the US, for example, may still have the technical edge, but maybe not for long.

Aryn Baxter  8:51
Yes, they’re also placing a lot of emphasis on what is provided to entice students back at key points in time where there are economic opportunities. And they can implement programs that help facilitate that mobility, connect individuals who have studied internationally with opportunities. And by providing those connecting resources, I think they’re really enabling return at strategic points in time to really advance economic development.

Will Brehm  9:27
So this brings up the idea of “brain drain”, right? So these students that go study abroad, and the potential that they don’t return, as you said, come back to their their countries. So you’re saying China is developing certain ways of ensuring all of these Chinese students that are studying abroad actually come back?

Joan Dassin  9:47
Right. They’re planning with knowing the Indian experience, for example, which has led to a lot of brain drain, particularly in the early years. That’s reversing now; both China, as well as India, have experienced a kind of reverse brain drain because they have more attractive labor options, university positions, but also scientific research capability that other developing countries may not have. So I think the picture that we see – and again, in the book, we have a whole chapter about brain drain issues – the data show that it’s the poorest countries that unfortunately suffer from the worst brain drain, precisely those countries that need the most human capital and the most talented and trained people have the hardest problems in retaining those people. Because of course, the infrastructure is poor, there may be very few employment opportunities, and so on. And so you see the regions that are most affected by out migration of trained people or just non return of foreign students are still in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in the Caribbean and some small island states suffer the worst, but others are beginning to cash in on the more globalized labor market.

Aryn Baxter  11:15
In the scholarship program space, I think there are also shifts happening. So whereas you used to see the patterns that were emerging immediately following the colonial period continued through international scholarships, you really do see a lot more south-south regional, educational mobility opportunities supported by different funders. Commonwealth scholarships and fellowships plan would be one example of that. The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program is also supporting opportunities for African students across the African continent. So you see more and more examples of this and I think that also relates to this conversation around brain drain: What might be some of the the opportunities related to how we design these programs? What opportunities are provided that that still are expanding access to high quality education opportunities, but more regionally?

Joan Dassin  12:19
Right. I think that’s a great point, Aryn, and I’d add to that. One of the dilemmas that you face when you are a donor or implementing programs is: What is the tradeoff between providing support for individuals (that’s what scholarships typically do) versus strengthening institutions, namely universities, where eventually more students could be trained? And donors and funders have gone back and forth about this over many years. There are lots of swings of the pendulum, which is one reason why it’s hard to track just the impact of scholarships, because they’re really connected to cyclical trends in funding for higher education institutions more generally. And one of the proximate causes of brain drain, say in sub-Saharan Africa, has been a lack of support for universities in the region. And of course, what we’re seeing now as the educational attainment levels increase, and you have more secondary school graduates looking for post-secondary education, the universities, which were very much decimated over in the 1980s as a result of structural adjustment policies and so on, simply do not have the absorptive capacity to accommodate the demand. So you’ve got this funny situation where you have an exploding demand in many developing countries for higher education, but the universities or the other post-secondary options just aren’t there. And that is a bigger problem for development than simply the population of globally mobile students, which is very small related to the overall pool of students who are seeking some sort of post-secondary education.

Will Brehm  14:17
So are donors and countries in the global south investing heavily in the supply side?

Joan Dassin  14:24
I think you see more of that than you did. We were talking about … one of your questions raised the issue of: Well, the international community was more focused on primary education, a gender parity under the Education for All paradigm, the Millennium Development Goals, and so on. And what we’re seeing, in fact, has been a huge push for increasing enrollment at the primary school level in the last 15 years or so. But what has begun to happen also is an understanding that you can’t privilege one sector of education, you need the whole system. Because if you don’t have universities, you don’t have this absorptive capacity to really create people who are competitive in their economies. And by the way, you also can’t train teachers for primary education if you don’t have universities or teachers’ colleges. So I think there’s a much more of an awareness now that education systems overall need to be strengthened to create sustainable economies and societies. And as a result, there’s more interest in higher education per se, and and this globally mobile piece of it.

Will Brehm  15:49
And then scholarships, specifically.

Joan Dassin  15:52
Scholarships, specifically, you know, tried and true. The Rhodes Trust was established in the early 20th century. There are some long standing programs – the Fulbright Program in the US, Commonwealth Scheme, others that have been in existence for 50, 60, 70 years. So they’re venerable in that sense. And I think what you see, even more recently, is a more conscious design of programs by donors and administrators and scholars and people who do research on this, to enhance the impacts. Because no matter what you do, no matter how much money you pour into international scholarships, you’ll always fall short of the demand.

Will Brehm  16:39
And so you’re talking about impact. So what sort of impacts do scholarships have? This is one of the main areas of your book is to look at what you call “positive social change”. What could that actually entail, and how do scholarships help produce such change?

Aryn Baxter  16:58
I think there’s a couple of directions in which we can answer this. We can talk specifically about some of the pathways that we’ve identified and talk about in the book. But maybe before getting to that, it’s helpful to break down the levels that are used to talk about the impact of scholarship programs, or that we can we can look at outcomes at. And so there’s the individual or more micro level analysis of outcomes, starting simply with access and the social mobility that that can be accompanied by, as well as the technical skills, competencies, leadership related competencies and commitments that are developed throughout the educational experience by scholarship recipients themselves. And then there’s the meso level, or the more institutional organizational level, at which individual recipients of scholarships eventually contribute. That can include having the ability to shape institutional development and outlook, developing skills in areas that are particularly relevant to institutions or organizations in the sending countries. And then there’s questions related to the choices, the mobility choices that scholarship recipients make, as well as the critical mass that it takes to achieve those kind of outcomes at the meso level. And then there’s the macro level outcomes that are, of course, the most complex and challenging to actually identify. And there’s problems of attribution associated with how we talk about these outcomes, but those include the sociopolitical, economic, civic development outcomes as well as impacts on international relations, educational or public diplomacy. Those are some of the areas that a lot of these programs talk about and combine these various levels and the desired outcomes that they hope to achieve.

Will Brehm  19:16
So on that macro level, it would be something like the the Fulbright scholarship. What’s the intended IR, international relations, goal? It’s something about giving, like soft power of American foreign policy?

Aryn Baxter  19:32
Right. Building networks, relationships that are maintained over time and strengthen ties and goodwill between between countries.

Joan Dassin  19:46
Right. Just to amplify that, I just want to reinforce the point that we’ve been discussing, that globally mobile students – this general population that we’ve been talking about – represent just a small fraction of students, period, in the world. And among those students, those globally mobile ones, we’re talking maybe 5% who received some sort of scholarship. And just to get an idea in the US context, just to show you again, looking at this recent data from the Institute of International Education, there are about 20 million students in US higher education – undergraduates, graduate students, and so on. The number of American students, US students, who went abroad last year – including most of them, a majority for short term, programs less than six months – was about 325,000. So when we’re talking about international education in terms of physical mobility, there’s a whole other discussion to be had about online education, and what that opens up in terms of the possibility for creating some of these positive social effects, such as intercultural understanding, attaining language competence, what it means to actually have to do project based learning with people from a different culture, and so on. But just focusing on that physical mobility, it’s still reserved for a very tiny group. Not always an elite. And that’s where a scholarship program that is targeted at a particular kind of individual, someone who has, let’s say, a leadership role in a rural community, or someone from an underrepresented or marginalized group, or someone who otherwise would clearly not have had the opportunity for higher education, even in his or her own country. That’s where those kinds of programs can really make a difference, because you’re providing this very rare opportunity to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access.

Will Brehm  22:05
So what are some of the challenges to the current scholarship programs that you’ve looked at?

Joan Dassin  22:10
We need more money. As I said, the demand always outstrips the supply. It’s quite interesting, I worked for many years for the Ford Foundation and they always track the number of over the transom requests, and just individuals who were seeking funds, and this is a foundation that provides mostly institutional support to organizations. And by far, the largest demand was always from people looking for scholarships, including domestic students. And I think the cost of higher education, in many countries, certainly in the United States, but even elsewhere, public institutions are getting to be harder to maintain for all kinds of reasons. So generally, young people are really in a bind everywhere, because everywhere in the world, the premium on higher education is high. The more education you have, the better you’ll do in employment, and your country wants you to be able to contribute to the economy. And yet, how are you going to finance that education? So that’s the big picture virtually everywhere and I think that scholarships, therefore, will never be enough to meet this demand. But the funds that we do have can be used in creative ways.

Aryn Baxter  23:44
Speaking from the program implementation side, and challenges that students who are recipients of these scholarships face, I think they’re at the heart of some significant challenges when there is misalignment between the objectives of a particular program and the educational experience provided, and then the opportunities available upon program completion. So if there’s really high expectations to return and contribute in particular ways, but those pathways aren’t facilitated within the structure of the program, or there are significant contextual challenges that make that difficult, I think the dilemma is that students who are receiving these scholarship face, in the midst of these expectations and the realities of their experience are really difficult. And I think that that makes really thinking through these design considerations and really aligning the expectations and objectives of a program with the support structures that are put in place and the opportunities that are provided is especially crucial.

Joan Dassin  25:06
I totally agree with that from the program implementation point of view. Again, the bigger picture is that there’s a convergence in both developing countries, as well as industrialized countries, that you’re kind of in a box: you need education in order to get good employment, but it’s no guarantee. And we see youth unemployment around the world is three times greater than unemployment more generally. And in developing countries, in particular, you have societies where 70, 80% of the whole population is under the age of 35. And those are people for whom educational opportunity, whether they come in the form of a scholarship or access to an online program or some way of getting the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in a very competitive economic environment, is absolutely critical, not only for them as individuals, but for the whole society. So that’s why I think that scholarships actually can take a kind of leadership role, show the way that there’s so much talent in societies that is being left by the wayside, particularly among young people who have energy, who want to contribute, and they can’t figure out how to do that. So well targeted scholarship programs can, and that’s why a lot of programs focus on leadership and social activism, advocacy skills, issues that are not strictly academic, and are not strictly related to a particular field or discipline. And that’s very different than what might have been the case in the 1950s, or the ’60s, even: you came, you studied engineering, you went back and you were a leading engineer, and that was the paradigm. But now, related to the expectations that Aryn was speaking about, we expect our scholarship students to do everything – to learn advanced engineering techniques, oh, and by the way, run for parliament, and by the way, it would be nice if they were the first from their ethnic minority to run an NGO, and maybe they could also volunteer, and so on. So there are a lot of there are a lot of expectations that are, when placed on the shoulders of one individual, can become quite overwhelming, actually.

Will Brehm  27:40
So last week, the US Supreme Court basically allowed Trump’s travel ban to go into full effect. And that means people from the six Muslim majority countries will be prohibited from traveling to the USA. Do you think this will impact the mobility of higher education students, and maybe the scholarship students specifically?

Joan Dassin  28:05
I think it’s hard to say based on empirical evidence, because the last ban, the prior two versions, and now even this third one, which the Supreme Court is allowing to go into effect while lower court challenges are still being heard; we don’t actually know the ultimate resolution of that. But all of this transpired midway through a selection cycle on the North American academic calendar. So for example, at my university, we’re just now starting to look at applications for 2018/2019 academic year, and we’re girding ourselves for a distinct possibility that, overall, there’s been a chilling effect on international students. Because not only the perennial issues of cost and access, and not only being from those six countries on the list plus Venezuela and you know, a few other random countries, not only the specifics of the ban. But the overall hostility toward migrants, refugees, immigrants in general, makes Canada look very appealing at the moment, including the fact that Canadian education is at least 20% cheaper. So the US is running a tremendous risk of cutting into that extremely valuable source of revenue, so it will become very counterproductive. But we don’t know yet exactly what the impact will be empirically in terms of how many people. And you’ll never be able to track how many people just decided not to apply. We can track the enrollment figures, and already it looks like even last year, the rate of growth of international students in the US has begun to decline. It’s still growing, but at a lower rate.

Will Brehm  30:13
What about things like Brexit in the UK? Will this have an impact on the mobility of higher education students?

Joan Dassin  30:23
I think that the UK will be facing the same dilemmas that we do. They depend on not only international students, but EU labor, all over the UK. Anybody who’s been to London recently knows that. And already we know that the UK is paying a very dear price for this moment of political backlash, and we’re going to we were going to see, but the UK, after the US, is a very popular destination. But they’ve been tightening visa regulations for some time as well. So I think what we will see, and it’s not only, of course, the US and the UK; we also see the rise of parties on the right and this wave of populist nationalism elsewhere in Europe. Germany and France are sort of the bow works, but we see in Eastern Europe and Hungary and Poland. Even in the Netherlands, even in the Nordic countries, you see this kind of backlash. So it’s going to be interesting to see what this does to the global mobility patterns. But Aryn mentioned at the beginning, you see the emergence of these regional hubs. And those are fairly open cities, or open places, relative to what we see in Europe and the US. So Malaysia – your part of the world – Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, these are areas, these are places where there can be a lot of international students mobility. The Gulf states is another region: Qatar, UAE, these governments invest in enormous amount in higher education. I don’t know if you’ve seen but recently in Doha, there’s a place called Education City, where it’s really quite astonishing. But major US universities, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Cornell Medical School had these incredible campuses, and they pay students to come. So this, perversely, may have this impact of hastening the breakup of these just strict South-North patterns.

Aryn Baxter  32:47
I would just add that if you’re someone who believes in the potential for international mobility to really contribute to intercultural understanding that seeing these bans and these limitations on mobility at a time when there is movement in the direction of these isolationists tendencies, and it’s something that can counteract that. To see it being reinforced and limited is discouraging.

Joan Dassin  33:23
I would just add, by the way, that it was in this climate … we started the book before pre-Brexit and before the US election, but I think that this topic becomes even more important because we’re interested in the flow of people and ideas, and we’re interested in marshalling the strongest case that we can investigating what we know and what still remains to be understood and known and documented about the beneficial effects and about the tremendous potential that we see, and actuality that we see of people with international educations going back to their home countries and truly making a difference in any number of ways. And even though there’s still a lot of gaps in our knowledge and understanding, overall, we came out of this multi country study with renewed conviction of this hundred-year-old idea of international education. Many hundreds of years, but at least that in the in the modern phase. So I want to just say that our understanding reinforces how beneficial this kind of work is.

Will Brehm  34:42
Well, Joan Dassin and Aryn Baxter, thank you so much for joining FreshEd.

Aryn Baxter  34:47
Thank you for having us.

Joan Dassin  34:48
Thank you.

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