In an era in which goods, services, capital, and people all routinely cross borders, diplomacy has become more multidimensional and interconnected than ever before.
Even though education and human capital building, which are critical for remaining competitive in this world, face a unique opportunity to become a new priority of this multilateral agenda, examples of engagement in this area are still scarce and random.
The US-Latin America relationship provides a perfect case. The bilateral agenda has not moved far from historic issues such as citizen and border security, democracy building and human rights, and trade. Even though education underlies almost every issue on the list, the formulation of educational programs and goals has been more an exception than the rule in foreign policy agreements. Both sides have been hostages to more urgent matters and are failing to reach compromises on an issue where both have complementary interests and remarkable challenges in the longer term– as, for example, PISA results reveal year after year.
Higher education has managed to escape this pattern and became the object of some interesting bilateral initiatives, directly linked to competitiveness and innovation. In what has become one of the most far reaching programs, President Barack Obama launched in 2011 “100,000 Strong in the Americas” for Latin America and the Caribbean. The purpose of the program is to foster greater international exchange of students across both regions by 2020. Besides strengthening bi-national relations, the program seeks to better prepare young people for the 21st century global workforce, making them internationally-aware and cross-culturally adept and, by doing so, promoting future leaders and innovators.
With more than 886,000, the number of international students studying in the U.S. is at a record high. So is the number of American students studying overseas - nearly 290.000-, according to the Institute of International Education’s (IIE) 2014 Open Doors report released in late 2014. The economic contribution of international students in the U.S. has also increased from $24 billion (2012) to $26.8 billion (2013), according to an economic analysis by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
Though little has changed among the top five most popular destinations for American students (United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, and France); the report argues that “less traditional” locations have seen some growth in popularity. Latin American countries like Brazil, Costa Rica, and Peru rank together with South Africa, Thailand, South Korea, and Japan. This growth has not been both ways, though, with the ratio of Latin American students in the US still being surpassed by Asian and European students.
The 100.000 Strong initiative has partnered with private companies and corporate foundations like Santander, Coca Cola, the ExxonMobil Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, among others, for additional resources. These funds have been in part assigned to several universities across the region through grants to build capacity that increases study abroad to the United States and the reception of US students.
The program has also been incorporated to specific bilateral frameworks, like the one launched in Brazil, which will send 100,000 Brazilian students abroad to study science, engineering, mathematics, and technology-based disciplines, half of whom will study in the United States
In a similar way, Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto from Mexico and Obama presented in 2013 the Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation and Research –FOBESII- to promote higher education exchange. By doing so, they seek to increase competitiveness and cooperation on technological development and innovation. Mexico is the 9th ranked country of origin for foreign students in US colleges, and the 13th most popular academic destination for US students.
Higher education institutions themselves are gradually developing their own channels of dialogue, cooperation, and interaction. Much of the current diplomatic activity for the global engagement of higher education is institution-to-institution, driven either by commercial motivations, or marketing interests or some strictly academic, seeking cooperative agreements to deepen and broaden the quality of their programs or expanding opportunities to join international research networks.
The philanthropic community has also crossed borders through organizations like PREAL, Teach for America, the World Fund, Fulbright and Junior Achievement, with initiatives that range from hemispheric benchmarking and advocacy efforts to fundraising or teacher training in Latin America, among others. Moreover, development assistance, a historic force in foreign policy, remains a driving force to strengthen bilateral relations with other nations, while building political and economic stability, alleviating poverty and creating jobs.
According to Duncan Wood, Director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, growing international competition creates a need to join forces and work on a positive agenda that goes deeper than mere commercial agreements or cross border security because, though Latin America could be a land of opportunity, a lot more work needs to be done. He continued by noting that even though engagement in higher education is off to a good start, the Americas need to attract more investment in K-12 education, especially in science, engineering, technology and math, and that to achieve the academic levels necessary to be competitive they need support and cooperation from governments, the private sector, and civil society.