Whether you refer to it as a “pivot” or a “rebalance,” strengthened United States engagement in Asia is good news for the Philippines.
That was clearly evident in the meeting last June in Washington, DC, when Presidents Benigno Aquino III and Barack Obama discussed ways to further reinvigorate and expand the bilateral relationship.
But lost in the talk of ongoing diplomatic and defense cooperation between the US and the Philippines is the need for further discussion of how to increase critical business-to-business and people-to-people contacts between the two nations.
Such interactions are a valuable cornerstone of both commercial and “cultural diplomacy” and can enhance traditional diplomatic relationships in subtle, wide-ranging and more sustainable ways.
Yes, it’s true that US-Philippines exchanges have occurred with some frequency during a long and sometimes tumultuous bilateral relationship. Past successes, however, can and need to be built on.
Education is a natural starting point, building off the heritage of the pioneering American teachers, known as the “Thomasites,” who arrived in the Philippines at the turn of the last century to help establish a new public school system, with English as the medium of instruction.
A pro-Filipino pivot today though would now include not just more US study-abroad students in the Philippines, but also increasing the number of Filipinos traveling the other way, to the US, to enroll in America’s institutions of higher education.
This would help reverse a disturbing trend that has become apparent the last few years. Although the pool of Filipinos who can afford to study overseas has grown with rising incomes, fewer young people from the Philippines are actually studying in the US.
Just released data from the Institute of International Education (IIE) makes this clear. According to the IIE’s “Open Doors 2012” report on international education exchange, there are reportedly only 3,194 graduate and undergraduate students from the Philippines studying in the US. Not only is that number hard to believe, but that’s a more than 11-percent drop from the year before.
In 2011, 3,604 Filipino undergraduate and graduate students reportedly studied in the US, a decrease of 5.5 percent when compared to the previous year’s total.
Closer to home
Why the drop? It’s not that Filipino students are staying home. One reason could be that they are choosing, with increasing frequency, to study in other English-speaking countries that are viewed, rightly or wrongly, as less expensive and are also closer to home.
Australia is now fast becoming a destination of choice for Filipinos interested in studying abroad. According to the Australian Education International (AEI), more than 4,800 Filipinos enrolled to study in Australia in 2010, an increase of more than 20 percent from 2009.
In addition to Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand are increasingly becoming popular choices for Filipino students, as these countries make concerted efforts to attract international students.
Why the sudden push for Filipino students by these countries? The answer to some degree is financial.
International students make a significant financial contribution to local economies. While figures from national ministries are not always directly comparable, international students in Australia contributed more than US$16 billion to that nation’s economy in 2011. The figure in 2010 was some US$13 billion in the UK and US$8 billion in Canada.
To lure Filipino and other international students, some governments and universities are designing programs that cut down on paperwork and wait times by having the student visa and academic enrollment processes work more in tandem.
A 2011 AEI survey of some 1,330 students drawn from six Asian nations sheds light on the impact of such efforts.
Overwhelmingly, students ranked Australia’s procedures and approval waiting time as more efficient and faster than those of the US. Canada and the UK also received higher rankings than the US.
The US can no longer afford to ignore the success other nations have had in recruiting Filipino and other international students, and the “soft power” advantage it gives these nations in winning the “hearts and minds” of tomorrow’s generation from the Philippines, Asia and around the world.
Here are three simple suggestions for a way forward.
First, take a lesson from others. The US should roll out pilot programs that harmonize the university enrollment and student visa application processes in order to reduce wait times and uncertainty, as Australia has done.
The US student visa and application processes are separate procedures for international applicants—one managed by the US State Department, the other by individual universities. A student who has been accepted to a US university may well find a visa comes too late, if at all, to begin studies on time.
Second, the US Department of State’s “Education USA” activities should further highlight the wide variety of US educational opportunities available.
The United States has internationally recognized state colleges that would be the envy of many nations and would welcome more international students. Community colleges should also be actively promoted abroad. They provide affordable and quality technical and vocational education that many Filipino students are interested in, and are a proven pathway to four-year universities for those students interested in furthering their education.
Finally, US policymakers should recognize that international education is a competitive advantage and must be included as a key component of the US policy pivot to Asia.
An inability to adapt to this reality is costing the US opportunities to re-energize valuable cultural linkages in the Philippines and throughout Asia today that could well pay dividends tomorrow.
More than ever it is a time for a business and education pivot by the US in the Philippines and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
(Editor’s Note: Curtis S. Chin is a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology. He served as US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank [2007-2010] under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. Jose B. Collazo is a frequent commentator on Southeast Asia. Follow him on Twitter at @josebcollazo.)