Education Makes Strange Bedfellows


Life is full of surprises.  The Institute of International Education (IIE), a US nonprofit best known for its administration of the Fulbright Program, the US Government’s flagship international exchange program, is partnering with the US Commercial Service in Vietnam to offer two US higher education fairs on 6 April in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and on the 8th in Hanoi. (This is part of an Education Trade Mission to Indonesia and Vietnam organized by the US Department of Commerce, the Vietnamese portion of which culminates in the 4th Annual Education Conference on 9 April.)

Consider this: IIE’s main sponsor is the US Department of State. In the fiscal year ending 30 September 2009 (the most up-to-date information available on its website) IIE’s total revenues were $363,511,000, of which $333,781,000 was for sponsored programs. Over half (51%) of IIE’s funding was from “US government agencies,” primarily the State Department, for its administration of the Fulbright Program.

While State and Commerce officially represent the same government, they don’t exactly see eye to eye when it comes to the role of that government in promoting US higher education. The former issued a policy statement in 2009 forbidding its 450 EducationUSA advising centers around the world from developing partnerships with private-sector recruiting agents who have contracts with individual U.S. higher education institutions.

This statement is nothing new; it is merely a reiteration of existing policy and a thinly veiled warning to those centers and advisers, who, for financial, or perhaps loftier, reasons might decide to work with agents. What is news, however, is the internecine battle being waged in the corridors of the Departments of State and Commerce in Washington, D.C. and in the field.

It is an example of one cabinet level agency, responsible for carrying out the U.S. government’s public diplomacy mission, pitted against another, which promotes U.S. exports, in a struggle to determine which official voice will prevail.

In a country briefing in Vietnam, for example, this scenario plays out as follows: a Public Affairs officer (i.e., representing State) speaks disapprovingly of working with agents and extols the virtues of providing “free, comprehensive and unbiased information” through an EducationUSA center to a group of U.S. higher education recruiters while a Foreign Commercial Service (FCS) staff member (i.e., representing Commerce) whispers to those sitting nearby about how FCS can help match U.S. schools with agents through one of its fee-based services (e.g., Gold Key Service). Meanwhile, at the IIE US higher education fair briefing, the country director parrots the EducationUSA party line about agency-based recruitment (i.e., it’s a “no-no”).

Better To Bend Than Break

When I was country director of IIE in Vietnam (2005-09), one of the organization’s highest priorities was “business development.” Always on the prowl for new sources of revenue, never resting on its laurels or assuming that existing pipelines of revenue would always flow freely: a good strategy for a nonprofit in an era of financial crisis. Add the fact that IIE has recently lost some major State Department contracts and, suddenly, the prospect of partnering with its main sponsor’s nemesis becomes more palatable.

So, the participating US colleges and universities will spend 6 and 8 April involved in a speed dating variation of agent matchmaking and recruiting students in a joint FCS/IIE education fair. Chalk one up for business development and practicality.

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