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US: China and Cuba in focus for study abroad

Two unique destinations for American study abroad programming have garnered some special attention in recent weeks. On 14 January 2011, the White House issued a press release under the title “Reaching out to the Cuban People” which, among other things, calls for a series of changes to regulations and policies governing “purposeful travel” to Cuba. This category of activity includes educational travel and lifts bans in place since the Bush administration that prohibited most colleges from running educational exchange programmes in Cuba, enrolling students from other institutions in such programmes, or using adjunct faculty (often Cuba specialists without full-time appointments) for these activities. Meanwhile, the “100,000 Strong” initiative, first announced in November 2009 and designed to drastically increase the number of American students studying in China, has received some high-profile endorsements this month, giving new momentum to US-Sino educational engagement.

The changes related to Cuba will likely take effect by the end of January or early February, and the higher education community has greeted this development warmly. Although the number of students involved is not great (from a high of about 1 200 before the restrictions were imposed to just 250 under the more restrictive policies), the principle of allowing educational institutions (not the federal government) to determine where students should be allowed to study internationally is considered crucial. The US Congress, however, which does not need to approve these changes, is more divided on the issue. Democrats in general support liberalising ties with Cuba, while Republicans typically oppose anything that will facilitate the flow of money into the country. They also cite foreign policy and security concerns.

On the China front, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently reached out to the American higher education community in a communication urging active support of the “100,000 Strong” initiative, which the Obama Administration hopes will build up the number of American students studying in China to 100 000 over the course of four years. To help achieve this goal, Secretary Clinton has challenged study-abroad providers and sending institutions to double their numbers of China-bound students over the next four years. A public endorsement this month by First Lady Michelle Obama, and equally positive noises from Chinese President Hu Jintao during his January state visit to Washington, DC, have added lustre to the public campaign. The response to these ambitious goals has been enthusiastic in principle, but questions about implementation have been raised. Most recent figures show that only some 13 000 Americans opt to study in China, and the federal government has said that its “100,000 Strong” initiative, estimated to cost USD 68 million, will need to rely principally on private-sector funding. So far, press reports indicate that just USD 3.2 million has been donated to the effort.

White House, Office of the Press Secretary Institute of International Education