Is Europe Passé?

As U.S. higher education shifts to a 'Pacific Century,' Europe feels the sting.

Ricky Wong for The Chronicle

Chinese students and their parents learn about American schools and colleges at an education expo in Beijing in 2011.
July 29, 2013

Since he came into office, President Obama has begun major educational efforts in China, Indonesia, India, and Latin America. Notably absent has been Europe. In fact, the Obama administration has labeled this "America's Pacific Century."

The same could be said of higher education's international strategy.

In Yale's global-planning documents, projects in China and India are cited multiple times while Europe is barely mentioned. Of Columbia's "global centers," two are in Asia, two are in the Middle East, and two are in Latin America. Europe gets one. And at Washington University in St. Louis, 17 of its 28 strategic international partners are in Asia. Two are in Europe.

Is Europe being put on the back burner? American universities say absolutely not, that they're simply turning their attention to neglected parts of the world in an effort to create a more balanced global strategy.

Others aren't so sure. Study-abroad directors in Europe are told their programs are less "transformational" than a trip to China or Africa. European universities have a hard time getting on the coveted "strategic partner" lists of American colleges. And new sources of funds for research and exchange focus on countries outside of Europe.

The educational alliance between Britain and the United States, warns Richard Everitt of the British Council, which promotes culture and education abroad, "has been completely neglected strategically."

People on both sides of the debate have evidence to bolster their cases. On the one hand, trans-Atlantic research is broad and deep. Research Councils UK has about 1.5 billion pounds, or more than $2.3-billion, in active research partnerships in the United States. More than half of Americans who study abroad continue to choose Europe as their destination. And for all the attention Yale devotes to Asia, the university has far more faculty research projects in Europe.

Yet there's no doubt that when universities think about new opportunities, whether for student recruitment or research alliances, they are unlikely to turn to Europe. In fact, in a survey last fall looking at international-enrollment trends, American universities, asked where they were devoting new resources, placed Europe near the bottom, above only Africa and Japan.

"It's somehow easier to start with a blank sheet of paper and a new partner," says Suzanne Alexander, director of the international office at the University of Leicester, in England, who has been running workshops in Europe on building strategic partnerships for nearly a decade. Europe has been on the radar of American institutions for so long that they feel it is neither exciting nor necessary to do much to maintain those relationships, she says. "There's a feeling that everyone could do this for themselves. They could meet each other at conferences and begin research projects on their own. But they don't."

Data from Thomson Reuters Web of Science show that while the degree of U.S. collaboration with key European Union countries has risen steadily over the past decade, collaborations with China have skyrocketed. (See chart.)

How did we get to this place? And is there any harm in paying less attention to Europe?

How we got here is the easier question to answer. A combination of forces has led American universities, as well as the U.S. government, to see Asia, and to a lesser degree Latin America, as more ripe for prospecting than Europe is.

The most well known is surely the demographic shift in Asia. A rapidly growing young population, combined with a rising middle class, has led to a surge in enrollments at U.S. colleges. The number of students coming from China, India, and South Korea more than doubled, to nearly 367,000, between 2000 and 2011. If you added together every country in Europe the total in 2011 would barely crack 85,000.

But it's not just about students. Chinese delegations, in particular, have been landing in droves in the United States, eager for matchmaking. Research partnerships, faculty exchanges, joint degrees—everything is on the table.

"They tend to move quickly," says Roger Brindley, associate vice president for global academic programs at the University of South Florida. "They will arrive and within a few minutes of saying hello they will say, 'We're in the United States to find partners for A, B, C, and D.' We don't experience that with other institutions elsewhere in the world."

Or as John Yopp, the recently retired associate provost for educational partnerships and international affairs at the University of Kentucky, puts it: "My goodness, they are aggressive. I haven't seen a European delegation in years."

The Chinese effort has paid off: In a 2011 survey, U.S. institutions listed China as their top partner for joint and dual degrees, edging out countries that historically had those kinds of partnerships with the United States, such as Germany and France.

Washington University in St. Louis is typical of many large research universities in how it pivoted toward the East as it expanded its global outreach. The institution was an early adopter of the "strategic partner" model, in which a select few institutions abroad are chosen to develop multifaceted partnerships, from research to faculty and student exchanges. Mark S. Wrighton traces the university's decision to be active in Asia back to 1995, when he became chancellor. "We could foresee then that Asia would become extremely important in economic terms," he says, noting that nearly 40 percent of the world's population is based in India and China.

Yet Washington's strongest international ties lay in Europe. It had relatively little under way with universities, corporations, or alumni in places like Singapore, South Korea, and China. Meanwhile, those countries were beginning to invest heavily in their higher-education systems to become more globally competitive. They, too, were eager to find partners abroad. Today Washington University has partners in Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, New Delhi, Tokyo, Singapore, Shanghai, and other Asian cities.

During the boom years in Asia, Europe was busy internationalizing its universities as well. But it focused on a different sort of internationalization, one that bound the European Union more tightly together and encouraged mobility within, not necessarily outside of, the region. The Bologna Process, begun in 1999, aligned disparate higher-education systems across the continent. But it also made studying in the United States less appealing by shortening the home-grown undergraduate degree to three years and the master's degree to one. Why would a European student want to go to the United States and spend more time, not to mention more money, pursuing an education? Even shorter-term study-abroad experiences became more challenging, given that students had to pack required classes into less time.

"I have often tried to recruit students from Europe, and it's always a difficult process," says Elias G. Carayannis, a professor of science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship at George Washington University. He recently lost a bid for a doctoral candidate from Germany, who, despite working in Washington, chose to earn his degree from a British institution.

Meanwhile, he says, he is "bombarded" with e-mails from Chinese students, all of whom come with government scholarships attached.

And while Asian nations continue to invest in higher education as a driver of development, university budgets in Europe have been slashed as governments wrestle with economic recessions. With few exceptions—notably Germany—institutions lack the deep pockets needed to fuel international activities. In fact, many of these drivers have also led European institutions to turn toward Asia as well, meaning that neither side has been particularly attentive to the other.

"If you want to say, 'Where's our focus of attention?,' in fairness it's looking at the newer countries," Ellen Hazelkorn, vice president for research and enterprise at the Dublin Institute of Technology, says of Ireland's shifting interests. "Where can we find new oil?"

U.S. government agencies have also shifted their attention to new markets, and away from Europe. Recent years have seen the birth of programs to send thousands more students to China and Latin America; to strengthen ties between Indian and American universities; to build programs and exchanges between Indonesia and the United States, and to create a cadre of scholars who speak so-called critical languages such as Arabic and Mandarin.

Meanwhile, the Atlantis program, which seeded partnerships between European and American universities, has been suspended, and the George J. Mitchell Scholarship, which sends students to Ireland for graduate studies, may be on the chopping block.

"Over the years we've been repeatedly told that Europe isn't a priority," Trina Y. Vargo, president of the U.S.-Ireland Alliance, which manages the program, says of her conversations with State Department officials. "Their argument was that just so much is going on in other parts of the world that needs our attention."

American universities have also changed their calculus as they pursue partnerships and students abroad, looking for students who can pay full freight or partners that can finance research projects to help make up for budget shortfalls at home. "All of us are looking for those revenue streams, and they're leading us to other parts of the world," says William I. Brustein, vice provost for global strategies and international affairs at Ohio State University.

Many academics say trans-Atlantic relationships are too well established to fret about a turn away from Europe. Mr. Wrighton, of Washington University in St. Louis, points out that although there are fewer European universities than Asian ones among its 28 partner institutions, the university has vibrant programs in Europe. Those include literature in Germany, art history in Italy, and architecture in Barcelona and Helsinki.

George Joseph, director for international relations and leadership programs in Yale's Office of International Affairs, makes a similar argument. Yale's recent emphasis on Asia in its strategic-planning documents is not about ranking a country's importance to the institution, but about focusing the university's attention on places where faculty need help making connections. "Europe has always had a conspicuous presence at Yale," he notes. "Part of our job is to help faculty get access to places they have a hard time getting access to."

But some European institutions interested in upgrading those relationships are struggling to gain traction here.

"For us it's much easier to find partners in developing countries who are more willing to strategically link up with us than the U.S.," says Herbert Grieshop, director of the Center for International Cooperation at Freie University Berlin. "We would love to extend it to the U.S., but that seems to be incredibly difficult."

Mr. Everitt, until recently the deputy director of the British Council's Washington office in charge of its education portfolio, traveled the United States doing outreach on behalf of Britain's higher-education institutions. "There is still a huge amount of collaboration," he says. But he heard "anecdote after anecdote about how they may have study abroad but there's no institutional, strategic plan with a U.K. university."

Without deeper engagement, which brings in more departments, as well as university leadership, to think of higher-level collaborations, European higher education's relationship with the United States is likely to suffer, some say, and that could have long-term effects for European institutions. The potential effects include lack of access to the best facilities and research, declining economic competitiveness, slower rates of innovation, and losing preferred status with leading institutions as they look for global partners to tackle big challenges, such as climate change or food security.

"If we don't lock in, the risk from the U.K. point of view is that we're going to slide down the pecking order," says Mr. Everitt. "Especially when China and India are investing way more of their GDP in education and research."

Of particular concern to those who run study-abroad programs in Europe is the attitude they sense in America: been there, done that. Some European institutions have had to suspend some student exchanges with U.S. partners for lack of interest here.

"We tend to see Europe as a map on the wall; a sense of Europe as a static object," notes Margaret R. Himley, associate provost for international education and engagement at Syracuse University, while developing countries are seen as more dynamic.

The problem, study-abroad directors say, isn't just that students are interested in other parts of the world. It's that colleges, in support of those efforts, imply that going to Europe is more akin to tourism than cultural immersion. It's not different enough; everyone speaks English; there are too many other Americans around.

"There is something very negative in saying there is greater value in going to a nontraditional location," says Michael Woolf, deputy president and chief academic officer at CAPA International Education, which runs programs around the world. "What do you say to a student who comes back from Spain, for example, and has an engaging time? Do you say, Your study-abroad experience is less valid than a student who has gone to Ghana?"

Others note that when a nation adds education to its foreign-policy strategy, it focuses on new markets, meaning that established partnerships are at the back of the line. "The whole strategy is to invest in relationships where you see massive returns," Steve Smith, vice chancellor and chief executive of the University of Exeter, says of Britain's international initiatives. The government has put tens of millions of pounds into partnerships in India, he says, ensuring that virtually everything British institutions do there ties into the national research agenda. The same can't be said of what's happening with the United States, he says. The work is disparate and decentralized

These trends are only likely to accelerate. Given the foreign sources of students in the STEM fields, many of the next generation of researchers in the United States will have stronger ties to Asia than to Europe. Study-abroad priorities are unlikely to change, focused as they are on developing nations. And the most aggressive suitors continue to come from emerging markets.

Yet a movement to bolster trans-Atlantic ties has begun.

The British Council, for one, unveiled in June a new global partnership fund to bring together researchers from the United States, Britain, and emerging economies. Similarly, the European Union's new Horizon 2020 program, the largest source of research money in Europe, has opened itself to institutions around the world. These programs, designed to boost trade and strengthen ties between nations, have political and economic significance as well.

While the United States has not yet created similar research programs, it's worth noting that in its pivot to Asia, the Obama administration has come to see Europe as a critical counterbalance to China's growing power. To that end, the U.S. government is hoping to reduce trans-Atlantic barriers to trade, with support from the business sector. In a recent report, the European Council of American Chambers of Commerce noted that despite the hype about this being Asia's century, the European Union produces far more goods and has much deeper economic and financial ties to the United States than China does.

In fact, if anything is likely to shift American attention back to Europe, observers say, it's the realization that the two regions have an enormous amount in common, from well-resourced research laboratories to strong protections of intellectual property. And as Western universities struggle to establish substantial partnerships and branch campuses in emerging nations, traditional partners may regain some appeal.

"There are some substantial, viable relationships going on now" in emerging markets, says Mr. Brustein, of Ohio State. "But some are going to disappear like a cloud of dust. I think people are putting too much into the hype. There's still tremendous interest in Europe."

Mr. Carayannis, the George Washington University professor, compares American universities to businesses. "Hypercompetition" in the industry, he says, has propelled institutions to seek short-term gains, usually found in growing markets such as China, without thinking about what is most likely to sustain institutions in the long term.

Some observers also think there's a third way, one that is slowly being recognized by universities on both sides of the Atlantic: trilateral or multilateral partnerships. New global financing sources, some of which emphasize global challenges like climate change, encourage institutions to think beyond bilateral arrangements.

Washington University, for example, has expanded its list of international partners to places such as Santiago, Chile; Utrecht, Netherlands; Ankara, Turkey; Campinas, Brazil; and Budapest, Hungary. "We're not just about bilateral relationships," says Mr. Wrighton, the chancellor. For example, he says, the university will be doing more research into the aging global population, drawing in partners from Asia, Europe, and Australia.

"Higher-education capacity, research, and instruction is flattening globally," says John Hudzik, former vice president for global engagement at Michigan State University. "Clearly Asia is ascendent. But I don't think of the 21st century as the Asian century. It's going to be the global century."