“International education ‘number one priority’ for US bureau”

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At the February IIE Summit 2019, Marie Royce, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), US State Department, told her audience that international education is the #1 priority for ECA.  Her deputy, Caroline Casagrande, confirmed that “additional resources” have been obtained to promote outbound and inbound study abroad.  What “additional resources,” I wonder? 

In terms of inbound students, I’m afraid the horse has left the barn and that whatever support the US State Department has to offer is too little, too late.  The elephant in the room of the IIE Summit was, of course, Donald Trump and MAGA, who really don’t care about international students, at best.  Naturally, no one at IIE can say that because one of the golden rules in the NGO world is “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”  Since IIE received 78.2% of its 2017 revenue from “government grants,” that’s a lot of food!  (That percentage was once heading south in the interest of diversification, i.e., don’t put too many of your budgetary eggs in one basket – to the credit of IIE – but I guess some things are not meant to be.)  

In fact, the view of the vocal nativist minority may shift from not caring to wanting to fewer international students to study in the US following in the footsteps of a recent survey in Australia in which 54% of the respondents, admittedly barely a simple majority, thought that international student numbers should not be increased.  

If international education is going to be the “number one priority” for the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), it is probably in word only.  As usual, US educational institutions are on their own and, in fact, are saddled with the additional burden of having to work against the negatives that have piled up during the Trump administration in- and outside the Beltway.  

Following a point/counterpoint format, here are some additional observations:

“We face growing international competition to attract the world’s globally mobile students. While we are already making great strides to respond to these new challenges, we must step up our game.”  What are the “great strides” ECA is making, pray tell?

“At ECA our goals are clear,” said Royce, underlining that US government is committed to both outbound and inbound exchanges – and explaining that president Donald Trump began penning letters to all US Department of State exchange participants in 2018.  A symbolic act that, in Trump’s case, only means he likes to see his name appear in as many documents as possible.

ECA also “actively supports” America’s competitive education advantage through its Education USA network, which operates in 180 countries, with 435 centres and 550 advisors to promote American colleges and universities abroad, she reminded.  While EducationUSA is useful, it is hardly a competitive advantage.  On a related issue, I hope ECA thinks long and hard about its decision to work with education agents, embraced by the pro-agent crowd but not by EducationUSA in the field.    

However, cost is a “leading reason that students decide not to pursue US study” Royce said, and ECA “wants to raise awareness abroad that there are study options at many price points”.  Cost is one of many factors contributing to the steady decline of international students choosing the USA as an overseas study destination.  Others include gun violence, the widespread perception that the US is not as open and welcoming as it once was and, in the case of countries, Trump himself, who has insulted a long and growing list of peoples and countries.    

The fact that IIE awarded ECA the first centennial medal is yet another example of that organization kissing the hand that feeds, given how much of IIE’s budget still comes from the US State Department.  

Finally, as with the rhetorical open arms embrace of education agents, announced by the same two ECA political appointees last December, we’ll have to wait and see if they’re planning to walk the walk.  If so, what will the impact be, if any?  I won’t hold my breath.  The latest is that EducationUSA may provide training to education agents.  That could be a good thing if it’s done in the right way and agents are probibited from using text or images from such events in an attempt at honor by association.  As mentioned in a recent co-authored article, the devil is in the details.  

Postscript:  Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, the UK government has published a new International Education Strategy that outlines “plans to increase students numbers and income generated from international education.”  While I’d prefer less emphasis be placed on the revenue benefit of hosting large numbers of international students, I understand that’s the key selling point for most policymakers.  Having said that, the UK and other governments that value international students have something that the US government does not currently have – a STRATEGY.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

 

“Foreign student numbers should be cut, say Australians”

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A national survey, commissioned by the University of New South Wales (UNSW), unexpectedly revealed the growing public antagonism to the international visitors.

So much so that a majority of people now believe the government should call a halt to any increase in their numbers.

I wonder when we’ll hear this from the MAGA crowd and its Dear Leader in the US?  Is it the next nativist shoe to drop?  Perhaps a survey waiting to be conducted and, if the result mirrors that of Australia, yet another nail in the coffin of US international student recruitment.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

International recruitment – Are education agents welcome?

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This is the second in a series of co-authored articles about commissions-based recruitment of international students.  The other co-author is Eddie West, executive director of international programs at UC Berkeley Extension. Previously, he served as director of international initiatives at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Eddie blogs at International Education Insights.

The first article, entitled An ethical approach to commissions-based recruitment, was published last October, also by University World News.  The last in this trilogy is about, gasp!, international students bypassing education agents and applying directly to educational institutions.  Imagine that!  We not only do but will discuss specific examples of students applying on their own and why.  

On an editorial note, the original working title was Education Agents Welcome Where?, a play on the #YouAreWelcomeHere hashtag and the statements made last December by US State Department officials about welcoming education agents.  (The editor changed the title to one that makes it easier for people looking for the article online.)  

The debate is far from over, much to the dismay of the pro-agent crowd, so stay tuned!  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Expanding the Fulbright Legacy in Vietnam (?)

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.  -Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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This was the title of a 2018 article written by Mary Beth Marklein (MBM) for Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning (Volume 50, 2018 – Issue 1, pp. 63-70).  The online version was published on 22 May 2018.  Since I have been following the development of Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) since it was first announced, I read Mary Beth’s piece with great interest and, ultimately, disappointment.  It read like a one-sided, US-centric puff piece that could easily have been written by the FUV public relations office or that of its benefactor, the US State Department. She took the time to speak to quite a few FUV people who, of course, confirmed her rosy view of this institution and whitewashed its recent controversial history.  In other words, she committed a number of sins of omission.    

Here are some comments from colleagues who know Viet Nam, all of which are spot-on, in my opinion.

She has drunk the establishment Kool-Aid.  She thinks no one can truly do any wrong, I guess.  She certainly skated lightly past a few important issues, such as how money was extracted from the Vietnamese for Fulbright U.  

Like most Americans, she conflates two quite different concepts: “unbiased” and “pro-U.S.”  Ironically, at most high-quality universities in the U.S. a large number of faculty see it as their mission to make their students aware of the powerful criticisms of the “neoliberal” world order, “globalization”, and U.S. policy.  Even in the U.S., serious scholars (with some exceptions) are not mindless sycophants of U.S. imperialism.  But FUV is much more U.S.-nationalistic than most universities in the U.S.  So it’s worse than just “meddling” and imposing a U.S.-style institution on Vietnam — it’s imposing a lousy U.S.-style institution on Vietnam.

Below are some of my comments in red after the author’s paragraphs in blue.  

If U.S. readers have heard about FUV, it is probably because of the cloud that hovered over it in 2016 when FUV announced that Bob Kerrey would be chair of the FUV’s board of trustees. A decorated war hero who went on to become the Governor of Nebraska, a U.S. Senator, and a university president, Kerrey’s reputation was forever stained in 2001 by a revelation that he had led an attack in 1969 that killed 13 Vietnamese women and children civilians, and then covered it up. 
 
Where did MBM get the “13” figure – Kerrey’s memoir or the US military?  The figure I have from various reliable sources is 21.  That’s number that was used in the initial New York Times report from 2001 that broke the story.  In fact, his Bronze Medal citation reads as follows:  “The net result of his patrol was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”  
MBM also stated that Kerrey and his unit killed only women and children, forgetting about the 65-year-old grandfather whom Kerrey held down as one of his men, Gerhard Klann, slit the man’s throat, according to Klann.  
 
MBM referred to Bob Kerrey as a “decorated war hero” without mentioning the fact that one of his medals, the Bronze Medal, was awarded for the Thanh Phong war crimes.  
MBM neglected to mention that rather important fact that Kerrey’s mission that fateful night in February 1969 was a Phoenix Program operation.  
 
Kerrey has acknowledged and apologized, multiple times, for his actions; still, the FUV appointment prompted both demands for Kerrey’s resignation and a spirited defense of his appointment. Today, Kerrey’s name remains on the FUV website as a member of the board of trustees. FUV Trustee Ben Wilkinson disputes a report, published in May 2017, that Kerrey had quietly resigned (Ashwill, 2017). Nevertheless, Thuy has taken over the chair’s duties (Taft, 2018). 
 
I’m afraid MBM is missing the forest for the trees.  The point is Kerrey should never have never been offered that position and, having been offered it, should have refused.  Of course, Ben Wilkinson (BW) disputed what I revealed in my May 2017 article.  Always the loyal soldier, I refer to BW as the “quiet American,” a textbook example of someone who is interculturally competent (IC as a skill set) yet a US nationalist (nationalism as a mindset/ideology).  His blood runs red, white, and blue.  He was dead wrong in this case.    
 
The debate over Kerrey is healthy and necessary, but it also distracts from the larger story of the making of Fulbright University Vietnam, a story that includes cautious baby steps and giant leaps of faith.    
 
Regarding the “debate over Kerrey” – whose fault is it that?  Two consecutive PR disasters:  1) Bob Kerrey’s appointment; and 2) Thomas Vallely’s interview with Isabelle Taft for Politico.  He said that Kerrey shouldn’t be singled out for criticism because of the sheer ubiquity of violence against civilians in the Mekong Delta. In other words, so what if Kerrey and his Raiders murdered a couple dozen people in some village.  It was a common occurrence.  Besides, “There’s no one in Thạnh Phong going to FUV,” as he put it in a snide and hurtful as remark.  (Check out my article from August 2018 for more information, if you dare.)  FUV is its own worst enemy.  Ted Osius, former US ambassador to Viet Nam, joined FUV as vice president and then resigns six months into the job.  A little birdie told me that Vallely is on the way out.  Gee, I wonder why?  

Last but not least, another sin of omission is a major source of funding for FUV, namely, the balance of the Vietnam Education Foundation (VEF), a scholarship-for-debt program.  That $20 million came indirectly from the Vietnamese government, a partner in this project in more ways than one.  

Finally, what about the victims, both the living and the dead, of Kerey’s war crimes in Thanh Phong?  What about the cruel and insensitive comments by Vallely in that Politico interview?  What about the cynical and persistent use of education not only as a tool but as a weapon of soft power in trying to shape Viet Nam in the USA’s image, which is decidedly anti-Fulbright?  

I could say more but I think this will suffice for a blog post.  

Note:  The author is a Ph.D. candidate at George Mason University, where her focus is on US higher education as public diplomacy.  My hope is that she develops a more critical perspective on the issues she writes about and doesn’t continue to uncritically toe the line of US public diplomacy.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA, The Unquiet US American

On the outside looking in: A US American in Vietnam

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I have spent over 40 percent of my adult life outside of my home country, never content with having my soul controlled by geography, to paraphrase George Santayana. I carry a U.S. passport but it doesn’t define me. I am a U.S. ex-patriot and global citizen who calls Vietnam home.

Follow this link to read my latest essay for VNExpress International.  It includes some personal reflections of my nearly 14 years of living and working in Viet Nam.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

 

The Metamorphosis of International Students Into Honorary US Nationalists: a View from Viet Nam

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Follow this link to read my latest article, which is about a phenomenon I’ve observed over the years, namely, how some young Vietnamese who study in the USA become what I refer to as honorary US nationalists.  (If you’re not sure what nationalism means, have a look at this 2016 essayHint:  It’s quite different from patriotism.)  

Here’s an excerpt:  

Overseas study is a unique opportunity to learn about the good, the bad, and the ugly of the host country, all the colors of its social, political, and economic rainbow, as it were, a sentiment echoed by Senator J. William Fulbright, whose name is synonymous with international educational exchange in the country of his birth:  There is nothing obscure about the objectives of educational exchange. Its purpose is to acquaint Americans with the world as it is and to acquaint students and scholars from many lands with America as it is–not as we wish it were or as we might wish foreigners to see it, but exactly as it is… [From the Forward of The Fulbright Program: A History]

My advice to these three young Vietnamese, whose stories I have shared, and others like them, regardless of nationality, is as follows: Learn more about your country’s history, the sacrifices made by previous generations, and the role of foreign powers in domestic affairs. Learn about other countries as they are, not as some people wish you to see them. Preserve your intellectual and spiritual independence and, by doing so, retain your integrity. Finally, never allow yourselves to be used by people whose primary concern is their own country, especially when those interests run contrary to those of your country, and other nations and peoples. Be true to yourselves and to historical truth.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

About Viet Nam’s “gifting culture”

Giving gifts to people in authority has become normal, but we have to be aware it institutionalizes an ‘underworld.’

Also known as an “envelope culture” (văn hóa phòng bì) because envelopes are used for more than sending letters, so passé in the digital age, and giving “lucky money” (lì xì) at Lunar New Year.  A recent essay explains how small-scale corruption works and is recommended reading for those interested in learning about some of what goes on behind the curtain.  

Here are some of the money paragraphs, no pun intended:

The situation has been left for so long that it has become normal. And when this happens, people’s trust in the system is undermined, even as they go with it.

We have the option of eliminating this system entirely by refining our legal and administrative procedures to make them more transparent, more accessible to the public. In the long run, we would also need to learn how to spend the national budget more efficiently and more effectively. That way, not only can we reduce financial burden on our businesses, people can also see that their tax money is put to good use.

On a side note: did you know that as many as 90,000 businesses in Vietnam went bankrupt last year, a 50 percent increase compared to 2017? That happens despite how the country’s GDP grew by over 7 percent last year, the highest in a decade.

While that might signal a competitive economy where only the cream of the crop survives, I sometimes wonder how many of these businesses went bankrupt not because of their poor performance, but because of something else? You should also be asking that question, and so do policymakers.

While I agree with the thrust of the author’s essay, it’s a bit of a stretch to blame petty corruption for corporate bankruptcies.  There are many other factors, including lack of experience and knowledge on the part of the businesspeople whose companies go belly up.  The failure of most new companies is not something that is unique to Viet Nam.  

At any rate, how to solve this systemic problem and ensure that the new normal becomes a thing of the past?  

  1.  Raise the salaries of civil servants and take away the rationale (excuse) for the envelope culture;
  2.  Make it illegal for them to accept “donations”;  
  3.  Create a hotline for citizens to call to report bureaucrats who request “donations”, assuming the business owner, for example, has evidence that supports this accusation, e.g., audio or video recording; and, last but not least, 
  4. Reward conscientious citizens for reporting verified cases of petty corruption.  

The above measures could be the beginning of the end of institutionalized petty corruption.  Now Viet Nam just needs to come to terms with massive corruption, an area in which it has been making some inroads in recent years, thanks to the efforts of Nguyễn Phú Trọng, General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of Viet Nam.  

25thlogo_3Since Viet Nam is so adept at learning from the experiences of other countries, why not study the case of Sweden, once mired in corruption and now a squeaky clean country, comparatively speaking?  In the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index Sweden ranks 6th among 180 countries with a score of 84/100.  (Viet Nam ranks 107 with a score of 35/100.)  Now that’s an achievement worth recognizing, celebrating, and learning from!  

Postscript:  Here’s a bit of good news from Viet Nam.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA