merican universities, which for half a century have attracted the world's best and brightest students with little effort, are suddenly facing intense competition as higher education undergoes rapid globalization.
The European Union, moving methodically to compete with American universities, is streamlining the continent's higher education system and offering American-style degree programs taught in English. Britain, Australia and New Zealand are aggressively recruiting foreign students, as are Asian centers like Taiwan and Hong Kong. And China, which has declared that transforming 100 universities into world-class research institutions is a national priority, is persuading top Chinese scholars to return home from American universities.
"What we're starting to see in terms of international students now having options outside the U.S. for high-quality education is just the tip of the iceberg," said David G. Payne, an executive director of the Educational Testing Service, which administers several tests taken by foreign students to gain admission to American universities. "Other countries are just starting to expand their capacity for offering graduate education. In the future, foreign students will have far greater opportunities."
Foreign students contribute $13 billion to the American economy annually. But this year brought clear signs that the United States' overwhelming dominance of international higher education may be ending. In July, Mr. Payne briefed the National Academy of Sciences on a sharp plunge in the number of students from India and China who had taken the most recent administration of the Graduate Record Exam, a requirement for applying to most graduate schools; it had dropped by half.
Foreign applications to American graduate schools declined 28 percent this year. Actual foreign graduate student enrollments dropped 6 percent. Enrollments of all foreign students, in undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral programs, fell for the first time in three decades in an annual census released this fall. Meanwhile, university enrollments have been surging in England, Germany and other countries.
Some of the American decline, experts agree, is due to post-Sept. 11 delays in processing student visas, which have discouraged thousands of students, not only from the Middle East but also from dozens of other nations, from enrolling in the United States. American educators and even some foreign ones say the visa difficulties are helping foreign schools increase their share of the market.
"International education is big business for all of the Anglophone countries, and the U.S. traditionally has dominated the market without having to try very hard," said Tim O'Brien, international development director at Nottingham Trent University in England. "Now Australia, the U.K., Ireland, New Zealand and Canada are competing for that dollar, and our lives have been made easier because of the difficulties that students are having getting into the U.S.
"International students say it's not worth queuing up for two days outside the U.S. consulate in whatever country they are in to get a visa when they can go to the U.K. so much more easily."
American educators have been concerned since the fall of 2002, when large numbers of foreign students experienced delays in visa processing. But few noticed the rapid emergence of higher education as a global industry until quite recently.
"Many U.S. campuses have not yet geared up for the competition," said Peggy Blumenthal, a vice president at the Institute for International Education.
Still, Ms. Blumenthal said, it remains unclear whether the sudden decline in foreign enrollments is a one-time drop or the beginning of a long slide.
Not all educators are expressing concern.
Steven B. Sample, president of the University of Southern California - which last year had 6,647 foreign students, the most of any American university - said colleagues who lead other universities had expressed anxiety at professional meetings.
"But we compete no holds barred among ourselves for the best faculty, for students, for gifts and for grants, and that's one of the reasons for our strength," Dr. Sample said. "Now we'll compete with some overseas universities. Fine with me, bring 'em on."
Certainly many American universities continue to be extraordinary global brand names. Shanghai Jiao Tong University has compiled an online academic ranking of 500 world universities, using criteria like the number of Nobel Prizes won by faculty members and academic articles published (ed.sjtu.edu.cn/rank/2004/2004Main.htm). Of the top 20 on the list, 17 are American. Of the top 500, 170 are American.
During 2002, the most recent year for which comparable figures are available, some 586,000 foreign students were enrolled in United States universities, compared with about 270,000 in Britain, the world's second-largest higher education destination, and 227,000 in Germany, the third-largest. Foreign enrollments increased by 15 percent that year in Britain, and in Germany by 10 percent.
The countries exporting the most students were China, South Korea and India, but the annual global migration to overseas universities involves two million students from many countries traveling in many directions. That number is exploding - by some estimates it will quadruple by 2025 - as economic growth produces millions of new middle-class students across Asia.
In October, the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation, an economic forum for 30 leading industrial nations, took note of this global movement in a study. Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, an analyst at the organization's headquarters in Paris and an author of the study, said that traditionally most countries, including the United States, had tried to attract foreign students as a way of disseminating their nation's core values.
But three other strategies emerged in the 1990's, Dr. Vincent-Lancrin said. Countries with aging populations like Canada and Germany, pursuing a "skilled migration" approach, have sought to recruit talented students in strategic disciplines and to encourage them to settle after graduation. Germany subsidizes foreign students so generously that their education is free.
Australia and New Zealand, pursuing a "revenue generating" approach, treat higher education as an industry, charging foreign students full tuition. They compete effectively in the world market because they offer quality education and the costs of attaining some degrees in those countries are lower than in the United States. Emerging countries like India, China and Singapore, pursuing a "capacity building" approach, view study abroad by thousands of their nation's students as a way of training future professors and researchers for their own university systems, which are expanding rapidly, Dr. Vincent-Lancrin said.
In August a delegation of education officials from Singapore visited Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan, at the Ann Arbor campus. They took over a conference room, set up computers and peppered her with questions about tuition policy, fund-raising, governance and research, Dr. Coleman recalled. They wanted to know how Michigan became a prominent university, and how it was run today.
"Eventually they'll reap the benefits of this work," Dr. Coleman said. "Singapore will create world-class universities. Other countries are taking the same approach. We're going to have enormous competition. We'd better be prepared for it."
The rapid changes in India and China have special importance. The number of Indian students in the United States has more than doubled in a decade, to 80,000, the largest representation of any country. The 62,000 students from China make up the second-largest group. Graduate students and degree holders from those countries play a critical role in American science, engineering and information technology research.
Some 28 percent fewer Indian students applied to attend American graduate schools this fall than last year, according to a survey by the Council of Graduate Schools. This matched the overall decline for all foreign students.
Rabindranath Panda, the education consul at India's consulate in New York, said that huge private investments in Indian higher education in recent years had greatly increased options at home for Indian students, and that those who wished to study abroad were increasingly looking at universities not only in the United States and Britain but also in France, Germany, Singapore and elsewhere.
Higher education is undergoing even more sweeping transformation in China. The number of students seeking a postsecondary degree is expected to rise to 16 million students by 2005 from 11 million in 2000 and to keep rising thereafter, according to a recent report by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation. Even if only a small minority of those new students seek a foreign degree, they will enlarge their already important presence at hundreds of overseas universities.
But the new wave of Chinese students may not wash into the United States. Educators say applicants from China face more visa difficulties than applicants from any country outside the Middle East.
One reason, they say, appears to be that many Chinese students pursue the science disciplines that set off a screening process known as Visa Mantis, intended to prevent the transfer of sensitive technology. A Congressional study found that during a three-month period last year, more than half of all the Visa Mantis investigations worldwide involved Chinese students. The especially long visa delays experienced by Chinese students are a major irritant for many university presidents.
"Chinese students are getting heightened scrutiny," said the president of Princeton University, Shirley M. Tilghman. "I've asked many people for the rationale, but I've never gotten an answer that makes sense."
Chinese applications to American graduate schools fell 45 percent this year, while several European countries announced surges in Chinese enrollment.
"We had an especially large increase in Chinese students," said Martina Nibbeling-Wriessnig, a spokeswoman for the German Embassy in Washington.
The United States is also losing some Chinese scholars, partly because of China's strategic decision over the last decade to channel special investments to 100 universities with a view to building them into world-class research giants capable of winning Nobel Prizes.
In October, Dr. Coleman of the University of Michigan visited Shanghai Jiao Tong University, which created the online university ranking system and has also built a vast new campus. Partly because Dr. Coleman is a biochemist, her hosts took her to visit their new pharmacy school. It had hired 16 professors, she said - all of them returned from American universities.
But not only Chinese universities are seeking to lure top faculty members from American campuses.
"Baseball's World Series includes only American teams," said Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University. "But higher education is truly a world series now, because we're competing for students and faculty against universities all over the world."