Higher Education Webinar: U.S. International Academic Collaboration

Thursday, November 30, 2023
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Vice President for Arizona International, Dean of International Education, and Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Practice, University of Arizona


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Academic and Higher Education Webinars and Renewing America

Jenny Lee, vice president for Arizona International, dean of international education, and professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona, leads the conversation on U.S. international academic collaboration and how U.S.-China tensions are affecting higher education.

FASKIANOS: Welcome to CFR’s Higher Education Webinar Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Jenny Lee with us to discuss U.S. international academic collaboration. Dr. Lee is vice president for Arizona International, dean of international education, and professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona. She is also a fellow of the American Educational Research Association. Dr. Lee formerly served as a senior fellow of NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, as chair for the Council of International Higher Education, and as a board member for the Association for the Study of Higher Education. And she has also served as a U.S. Fulbright scholar to South Africa, as a distinguished global professor at Korea University, and as an international visiting scholar at the City University of London, the University of Pretoria, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

So, Dr. Lee, thank you very much for being with us for today’s topic. I thought you could begin by giving us an overview of current trends in U.S. international academic collaboration, especially looking at what’s happening with our relations with China.

LEE: Sounds great. Well, thank you for the opportunity, Irina. It’s a pleasure to be here and to speak with you and all those listening right now. I’ll speak for about ten or so minutes, and then open it up and engage with the audience. Hopefully, you all have some good questions that will come up during my remarks.

So, clearly, we’re entering a very interesting and somewhat uncertain chapter in how we understand the role of higher education globally. So I will begin with some general observation so all our viewers are on the same page. Now, first and foremost, the U.S. is mostly at the top when it comes to the higher education sector. Most of us already know that the United States houses the most highly ranked institutions. And this allows the country to be the largest host of international students and scholars from around the world. According to the latest IIE Open Doors report published a couple of weeks ago, the U.S. attracted over a million students from all over the world. And we’re almost back to pre-pandemic levels.

We also host over 90,000 scholars. And the primary purpose for them being here is research, for about two-thirds to 75 percent of them. These international scholars, as well as international graduate students, contribute significantly to the U.S. scientific enterprise. The U.S. is also among the leading countries in scientific output and impact, and the largest international collaborator in the world. In other words, the U.S. is highly sought because of its prestigious institutions, drawing top faculty and students from around the world. And with that comes the ability to generate cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs which further secures the U.S.’ global position in academia.

At the same time, of course, we’ve seen China’s economy rise significantly as the country surpassed the United States in scientific output, and more recently in impact as measured by publication citations, and is outpacing the U.S. in the extent of R&D investment. Chinese institutions have also made noticeable jumps in various global rankings, which is a pretty big feat considering the fierce competition among the world’s top universities. What we’re witnessing as well are geopolitical tensions between the two countries that have impacted the higher education sector.

While these two countries, the U.S. and China, are the biggest global collaborators—and they collaborate more with each other than any other country—they’re also rival superpowers. As global adversaries, what we are witnessing as well is increased security concerns regarding intellectual theft and espionage. I’m going to spend some time summarizing my work for those who are not familiar to provide some further context. I and my colleagues, John Haupt and Xiaojie Li, also at the University of Arizona, have conducted numerous studies about U.S.-China scientific collaboration. And what we’re observing across these studies is how the scientific pursuit of knowledge, which is fundamentally borderless, is becoming bordered in the current geopolitical environment. International collaboration, long valued as positive-sum, is being treated as zero-sum.

Besides the rise of China and the accompanying political rhetoric that posed China as a so-called threat, tensions also grew among accusations, as you may recall, about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and a corresponding sharp increase in anti-Asian hate crimes in the United States. Public opinions about China were not favorable, and thus there was not a whole lot of public resistance when the FBI’s China Initiative was launched in 2018. This initiative basically signaled that anyone of Chinese descent was a potential enemy of the state, including possible Chinese Communist Party spies in our own universities, even though there was no pervasive empirical or later judicial cases that proved such a damaging assumption. Nevertheless, world-renowned Chinese scientists were falsely accused of academic espionage and their careers and personal finances ruined.

In my research that followed with Xiaojie Li, with support from the Committee of 100, we surveyed about 2,000 scientists in the U.S.’ top research universities during the China Initiative. And we found that one in two Chinese scientists were afraid that they were being racially profiled by the FBI. We also observed that consequently scientists, especially those with Chinese descent, were less inclined to collaborate with China, less inclined to pursue federal grants, less inclined to even stay in the United States but rather to take their expertise to another country where they felt safer to pursue their research, including in China. In sum, the federal government’s attempts to weed out possible Chinese spies was highly criticized as a damaging form of racial profiling affecting even U.S. citizens and, in the end, undermined the U.S.’ ability to compete with China. Especially now, as we continue to observe Chinese scientists leaving the U.S. and taking their skills and talents elsewhere.

With John Haupt and two academics at Tsinghua University in China, Doctors Wen Wen and Die Hu, we asked about two hundred co-collaborators in China and in the United States how were they able to overcome such geopolitical tensions and the challenges associated with COVID-19 during the pandemic? And we did learn something somewhat unexpected, and I hope valuable. Basically, we found that mutual trust between international collaborators helped overcome such perceived hurdles, including risks of being unfairly targeted. What this tells us is that a chilling effect is certainly real and remains possible, but in the end scientists have tremendous agency on what they study, where they study, and whether or not they seek funds, or where they seek funds. Regardless of the host or home country, international collaboration is important to all countries’ scientific enterprise. Coauthors from different countries improve the knowledge being produced, its applicability, enlarges global audiences, and thereby increases the impact of the work.

So considering the value, yet risks, where do we begin? Firstly, federal and institutional policies, of course, matter, for better or for worse. But policies do not manufacture trust. The formation of an academic tie does not suddenly occur over a cold call in the middle of a global meltdown, as often portrayed in Hollywood. Rather, this is a gradual process. And the longevity of the relationship helps strengthen that trust over time. According to our research, these collaborative relationships begin as graduate students, postdocs, visiting researchers. They occur at academic conferences and other in-person opportunities. Cutting short-term fellowships, for example, will impact the potential of a future scientific relationship, but its effects may not be felt for years. Same with denied visas and opportunities for travel. Fewer graduate students from particular countries or fields also means a different shape when it comes to global science. U.S. for instance, was not too long ago Russia’s biggest foreign scientific collaborator, with the war in Ukraine, those research relationships, as well as much—with much of the Western world, have ceased.

All of this, and my related empirical research, was conducted when I was a professor at my home institution. And since July, I’ve been serving, as Irina mentioned, as the dean and vice president of international affairs at my own institution. And I’ve been thinking a lot of, what does this mean for institutional practice? For those in university leadership positions, as mine, you know this is a tough challenge. Especially as domestic demand and state funding for higher education is generally declining. And at the same time, internationalization is increasingly central to senior leadership strategies. Universities are continuing vying to attract the world’s students, even despite a decline of interest from China. And at the same time, research universities in particular are quite dependent on federal grants. We have our own research security offices that need to ensure our universities have good reputations and relations with our large federal funding agencies and taking every precaution to not be seen as a vulnerable site of intellectual theft. These units tend not to operate within international affairs.

And I’m very well aware that in my role of trying to attract as many students from China and develop international partnerships, all of them can be suddenly erased if a Chinese University partner does not pass visual compliance or there is a sudden presidential executive order, as we experienced under the Trump administration. I’m also very well aware that of senior leaders have to choose between my educational offerings and partnerships in China versus risking a major grant from a federal agency, I will lose.

We witnessed that with the shutting down of over 100 Confucius Institutes in the U.S., despite a lack of evidence of systematic espionage occurring through these centers. Public perceptions, informed or not, strongly affect the nature of our international work, as in the case of Florida. Such negative perceptions are not one country-sided, of course. A key concern for Chinese and other international students and their parents relate to safety. Gun violence, including on our own college campuses, anti-Asian hate crimes in surrounding neighborhoods, and unfavorable political environment in which studies might be interrupted as in the case of Proclamation 10043, or visa non-renewals are all contributing factors for the decline of interest from China, and uncertain future student exchange as well.

In closing, when it comes to China these days no practices are guaranteed. However, I can recommend some while also keeping in mind geopolitical conditions can suddenly change for worse, or perhaps better. I mentioned earlier the value of mutual trust. At my university, we have long-standing relationships with university leaders at Chinese institutions. We’ve set up dual degree programs in China. Actually, about 40 percent of our international student enrollment are through such partner relationships throughout the world, in which we go to where they are. Hiring staff who speak the language and know the culture are also essential. And, like any relationship, these arrangements have developed over time. They are not built overnight. It takes intention. It takes effort. But in my experience, as trust is established the numbers have grown, and the positive impact is still being felt. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much for that. That was terrific.

Let’s go now to all of you for your questions, comments. You can use this to share best practices and what you’re doing to your universities or institutions. Please click the raise hand icon on your screen to ask a question. On your iPad or tablet, you can click the “more” button to access the raise hand feature. And when you’re called upon, please accept the unmute prompts, state your name and affiliation, followed by your question. You can also submit a written question, they’ve already started coming in, by the Q&A icon. And if you can also include your affiliation there, I would appreciate it, although we will try to make sure we identify you correctly.

So let’s see. I’m looking for—no raised hands yet, but we do have questions written. So first question from Denis Simon, who’s a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Many U.S. universities have curtailed their exchanges and cooperation with China. You referenced that. Officials at these universities are worried that if they appear too friendly toward China they will lose all sorts of federal funding. Are these concerns justified? Are there any regulations or legislation that actually says federal funding can be removed assuming these universities are in compliance with the export controls, et cetera?

LEE: All right. Well, thanks, Denis, for your question. I know there—when I saw the list of those who signed up, I know there are many here who can speak to this directly. So I encourage those to also raise their hands and provide input in the Q&A, maybe in the form of an A instead of a Q.

But in any case, going to that question, you know, it’s a tough environment. And so much in my role, but what I even experienced in my research, is about that perception, that overinterpretation. So maybe signaling that we have this exchange program might draw attention in ways that might lead to suspicions that, oh, well is this, you know, somehow creating an opportunity for us to disclose military secrets? I mean, that’s where we take it. A friendly exchange or visit is oftentimes now having to be scrutinized and ensuring that there is no remote violation of export controls, even in educational delivery in a non-STEM field.

And what we’re seeing is that this—we have our highly sensitive fields, but that kind of scrutiny we’re also seeing applied to the institution more broadly. So these seemingly benign programs about language or culture, about fields that are enhanced or help promote so-called American values, are also being watched. So I believe as an institutional leader, again, as I mentioned earlier, having to deal with the possibility of unwanted or unwarranted attention versus not having that program, I think some, as Denis has pointed out, are leaning towards being more cautious. Unfortunately, China—any work with China is considered a risk, even if there is no reason for risk, as we’ve witnessed under—or, observed under the China Initiative. I don’t know if I’ve fully answered that question, but please follow up if I haven’t. And I know others can probably say more to that issue.

FASKIANOS: Great. I’ll take the next question from Peter—I don’t know how to pronounce—

LEE: Peter Becskehazy. Hi, Peter. (Laughs.)

FASKIANOS: There you go. Thank you very much.

LEE: I know Peter.

FASKIANOS: All right. Good. Well, I’d love if Peter asked his question directly, if he can. Oh, good. From Pima Community College. Go ahead, Peter.

Q: Hello, Jenny. Nice to see you.

LEE: Hi, Peter.

Q: Now my question is, the University of Arizona and other universities have had an inflow of dozens of countries, adding up to the million that you mentioned. Are other countries trying to fill in slots left vacant by Chinese students and scholars?

LEE: Yeah. Great question, Peter. And I think you can also share what you’ve observed at Pima in terms of the patterns you’ve witnessed. But for us, and as we are seeing nationally, we’re seeing India rise. Not at the—not at higher numbers in many institutions, compared to China, but the rate is rising. It’s not so simple, though, because we also have relations in India, and trying to set up agreements, and bring students. The competition in India is intense. So even though there’s a relatively so-called large market, and the U.S. has been quite successful in attracting Indian students, that is perhaps where the attention is as a more, I would say—I hate to use the word “market,”—but a stable student market.

There’s a lot more interest in graduate-level education globally, as we’ve observed. These countries that formerly didn’t have capacity now do have capacity. They have online offerings. They have branch campuses, dual degrees, lots of other options. And so the niche for the U.S., whereas before we didn’t really have to think about a niche, is really in graduate education. Now, of course, that’s not good news for Pima, that’s thinking about a community college and other kinds of educational offerings. But for us, we’re thinking about India a lot. Southeast Asia, of course, has always been an important partner to us.

Africa continues to be a challenge. We know that when we think about population growth, Africa is the future. There’s still challenges and trying to identify places where there is capacity. But also the affordability of a U.S. education is a huge challenge. So it’s a great question. And, again, I’m curious to know other places in the world people recommend. Of course, Latin America, given our location, is a key strategic partner. But again, affordability becomes an issue. And again, I’m just talking about the traditional international student who would choose to come to Arizona. Not talking about research collaboration, which is less bound by affordability issues.

Irina, you’re muted.

FASKIANOS: How long have I been doing this? OK. (Laughs.) I’m going to take the next written question from Allison Davis-White Eyes, who is vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Fielding Graduate University: We have tried to work on collaborations with European universities and African universities, and met with much difficulty. What trends are you seeing in these regions? And what are emerging global markets beyond China?

LEE: Great question, Allison. I mean, if you could leave the question in the future, so because I am visually looking at the question at the same time.

FASKIANOS: Oh, great. Sorry.

LEE: So, Allison, I’m not sure if you’re referring to academic or research. Of course, within Europe, where the government does highly subsidized tuition, it’s just becomes financially a bad deal, I suppose—(laughs)—for a student in the world who would normally get a free or highly reduced tuition to pay full price at our institution. So that kind of exchange of partnership, especially when it’s about—when it’s financially based, becomes almost impossible from my experience. But thinking about research collaboration, it depends on the level. So if it’s an institutional agreement, you know, it’s—often, these MOUs tend to just be on paper. It takes quite a bit of—it’s very ceremonial. You need to get legal involved. It’s a whole process to get an MOU. We really don’t need these non-binding MOUs for research agreements. Some countries like it, just to display that they have an MOU with a U.S. institution. But essentially, it doesn’t stop me as a professor to reach out to another professor at the University of Oslo, and say, hey, let’s do a study. Which we actually are doing.

So, yeah, feel free to be more specific, or if you want to raise your hand or speak on—and elaborate on that question. So, again, for educational exchange, it is difficult because we are—there’s already a process within the EU that makes it very affordable and highly supported within the EU, or if you’re part of that bigger program. Africa, again, my challenge from my role as an institutional leader is identifying places where there is already enough mass education up through high school where one would be able to consider, first of all, being admitted to a U.S. institution, but secondly, to be able to pay the cost.

FASKIANOS: Allison, do you want to expand a little bit?

Q: Oh, sorry. (Laughs.)

FASKIANOS: There you go. There you go.

Q: Right. Dr. Lee, thank you for your response. I think it was helpful, especially regarding the subsidizing of education in Europe. We’ve been working on some research partnerships. And we have just—you know, really, it has just been extremely difficult with European universities. And I do think part of it has to do with the way things are subsidized in Europe. I was just wondering if there were new and different ways to do it. I do appreciate your comment about the MOUs being largely ceremonial. I agree. And would like to see something with a little more substance. And that will take some creativity and a lot of partnership and work.

As for Africa, we have tried to create partnerships with South Africa. I think there’s some potential there. Certainly, some excitement. We’ve had a few students from Nigeria, extremely bright and motivated. I just would—you know, would like to hear, maybe from some other colleagues as well on the call, if there are creative ways in working with these students as well. So, thank you.

LEE: Yeah, no. And just to follow up quickly, and, again, opportunities for others to share, academic collaboration, as I mentioned during my remarks, is largely built upon mutual trust. And not to say it can’t happen from top down, but really does—is most successful from bottom up. And I don’t mean to refer to professors at the bottom, but meaning those that are actually engaged with that work. And so just some considerations is rather than a top-down initiative or strategy, is to identify those that are visiting scholars, already from that country, have networks within that country. What’s interesting, as I learned in my current role, is how little my predecessors worked with professors in these area’s studies programs, because they’re oftentimes treated as a separate or having different interests in mind when actually there is a lot of overlap to identify those that are actually there.

Allison, by the way, I lived in South Africa for eight years. And I know it actually takes a long time. My Fulbright started off as a one year, and I had to extend it because even getting the data while I was on the ground takes time. And I’ll be honest, I think part of it was taking some time just to build trust the intentions of my work, what was I going to do with that data, how is that going to be used? Was it actually going to be ways to empower them? You know, for those who study international collaboration, know this north and south divide, and I think there are places in the world that are—maybe have some guardrails up from those—not saying this is what’s happening in your institution—but someone that they don’t know coming from the Global North to study someone else in the Global South.

And so how do we create or initiate a collaboration that is clearly, expressly mutual at the onset? And, again, this is where trust can be operationalized lots of different ways, but that even begins with that initial message. I mean, I remember when I started my work, nobody responded to me. They’re like, who are you? And I don’t care who you are or what your CV says. And it takes time. You know, building that relationship, and that person introducing me to that other person. Like, you know, this is how scientific networks form. And I think, to some extent, this is also how institutional collaborative relationships also form.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to David Moore, who has a raised hand.

Q: OK, thank you. I just got unmuted.


Q: Lee, I appreciate your comments. And I heard your reference to Florida earlier. I don’t know if we have colleagues on this call from Florida, but I think they’ll know what I’m about to say. I’m the dean of international education at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale.

And as of tomorrow, December 1, Florida has to—all institutions in Florida, public institutions, colleges and universities, must be completely devoid of any partnerships in China. And not just China. There are seven countries of concern. And you probably can cite them, most of you would know the other six. But of the seven countries, Broward had four partnerships in China alone, none in the other countries that were active. And so we are now officially done, have to be. And I’ve had to notify the partners as well as our accrediting body, because these were international centers of Broward where they literally offer—we offered associate degrees, two-year degrees. And students could then transfer to an institution in the United States.

Now, this didn’t catch us too much by surprise because two and a half years ago our Florida legislature started in on this, really probably before that, where they isolated universities in Florida and said: You cannot do research—sensitive research, whatever, you know, engineering, computer science, et cetera—any research without notifying the state. And there’s an elaborate process that had to be—you know, they had to go through to do this. But now it’s not just research institutions. Now it’s not just those kinds of collaborations. It is, in fact, all partnerships of any kind. We had to end our agent agreements where we were recruiting students from China that were—where the companies were based in China. And in course our programs were not research. They’re just general education, two-year associate’s degree, maybe some business. But we’ve been informed now it’s completely done.

And so I’m actually looking for institutions outside of Florida who might be willing to take over the role that we’ve had in transcripting students who later want to come to the United States. At least for the first two years in China, and then transferring to the upper division to the U.S. So I’m not sure. You’re probably quite familiar with this. I don’t know if you know the details of how it was worked out in practice. We were the only community college in the state that had any partnerships. So we were the ones that had to desist. So I want to—there are probably people on the call that are familiar with this, but there might be many others.

And I just wanted to say that I’m looking to, you know, open that door to other institutions outside of Florida that might be willing in, yes, take a risk to go into China, but to—I’ve always felt that these kinds of programs were very good to build relationships, partnerships, communication. Ambassadors really. Where we feel like we were representing American education, whatever, you know, we call American values, democracy, you know, community. We thought we were doing good. But we found out we were—we were not. We were—we were doing something that went opposed to the prevailing political climate, at least in Florida. So that’s my comment. I think people should know about it. And thank you for letting me speak to it a bit. Maybe someone will speak up and say they’re interested in they can get in touch with me, David Moore at Broward College, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

LEE: David, thank you for sharing what you did. This is a really important example of where other states could very well head. And what’s interesting, as David noted, we’re talking about a community college. When we normally think about cutting ties, it’s usually around the concerns about national security. Now, how this translates to a two-year degree that is solely educational based is a pretty far stretch, and yet is being impacted quite severely. So I think we should continue to follow this example—unfortunate example. And, David, yeah, your partners have reached out to my office, and I’m sure to others. But thank you for being available.

Q: You’re welcome. We have partners—we are also working with your Jakarta, Indonesia center there. So we have that connection. Thank you.

LEE: Mmm hmm. Thanks.

FASKIANOS: And if anybody wants to share contact information in the Q&A box, you can certainly do that. That would be great.

There is a written question from Tutaleni Asino at Oklahoma State University: There was an article today in SEMAFOR highlighting that there are currently 350 U.S. students studying in China compared to 11,000 in 2019. Comparatively, there are 300,000 Chinese students in the United States. Is this a one-way problem, where the U.S. is not investing in international engagements as a result of being more inward looking and other countries having more options of who to collaborate with?

LEE: Yeah. Tutaleni, that’s—I think your question is an answer. And I think it’s—I agree with your observation. So we are seeing that as there’s state and public disinvestment in higher education, and including scrutiny about international higher education, we’re also seeing a decline and cutting of foreign language programs in the United States. So here we are, a monolingual country whose students mostly go to Europe or other English-speaking countries to study abroad. A very limited number of international—U.S. students who pursue undergraduate degrees in a foreign country. And knowing that the future is global and international, at least in my opinion, does not set the U.S. up well to be globally competitive, even though much of its international policy is around this rhetoric of we need to compete with China. And so you raise a good point. How is this possible if U.S. citizens don’t speak Chinese, or have no interest in learning about Chinese culture, or there’s reduced opportunities even in our own institutions, I think is something to think about and ask more questions about.

FASKIANOS: I’m going to take the next question from Zhen Zhu, chair and professor of marketing, director of faculty excellence, and director for international engagement at Suffolk University: How do you see the trend of U.S. students’ interest in study abroad to China?

LEE: There is actually growing interest. As many of you know, China—offering Chinese language in high schools is not as unusual as it used to be. There is growing interest as students are thinking about employability in global markets in multinational or international organizations or corporations. It would be fundamental, in fact, for someone who has any interest in international work to pick up the language if they can, and at your own institution.

FASKIANOS: Great. Let’s see. From—I’m going to take the next question from Jeff Riedinger: Is there a role for universities to play in knowledge diplomacy to sustain international relationships and collaborations in addressing global problems such as climate change and pandemics when national governments may be at odds with each other?

LEE: Thanks, Jeff. And hi, Jeff. I’m just going to read over that question so I can kind of digest it a bit. Is there a role for institutions to play in knowledge diplomacy, such as climate change, pandemics, when national governments may be at odds with each other? Absolutely, 200 percent. It is occurring—knowledge diplomacy, science diplomacy. That one individual going on a Fulbright or coming to study here for some extended visit, having these collaborations and, ultimately, you know, science—knowledge production—I mean, there’s no bounds. And when we think about the kind of research that may not occur because of these national governments are at odds when it comes to addressing climate change or other global issues, you know, the world is paying somewhat of a price when it comes to that in—when there are overarching concerns about national security.

So, you know, my issue has always been with policy you overlook nuance, and with sweeping policies that overlook the disciplinary distinctions and contributions, what is lost in the pursuit of trying to stay ahead of another country in fields and areas that really have no economic or military value, right? But yet, have an important cultural value, or maybe will address something bigger, such as COVID-19. So as I mentioned, the work that I referenced earlier about U.S.-Chinese scientists coming together during COVID-19, were actually scientists who studied COVID-19 together. And again, this was not—this was fraught with risks.

They were very well aware that there was a lot of scrutiny about any research about COVID-19 coming from China. There was scrutiny about, you know, where the data was held, who was analyzing it, who was funding it. And yet, these scientists took these risks in order to address how does the world deal with the pandemic. And this was based on interviews of those studies that were actually successful and published. This is where that mutual trust, as I’ve mentioned earlier, is so important. And without that mutual trust, these studies, I’m pretty certain, would never have been published, because it was not an easy path when it comes to that particular geopolitical climate during the pandemic.

FASKIANOS: Jenny, I’m just going to ask a question. President Biden and President Xi met during APEC. Did anything come out of that meeting that could affect U.S.-China academic collaboration?

LEE: Yeah. You know, this is tough. I mean, how do you analyze political statements? What do they really mean? And what is really going to change? I think what’s clear is that there’s an acknowledgment that we’re interdependent, but we’re also adversaries. Almost a love/hate codependent, in a relationship that we can’t just easily separate but we do need each other. But the form that it takes, I think there’s an understanding it needs to be more specific. And I don’t think that has been clarified yet.

I realize I missed part of Jeff’s question on what can institutions do? That’s such a good question. And I got more into the topic than the actual to-do. What can institutions do? Honestly—(laughs)—I’ll just speak as a researcher, to back off a bit, right? To let scientists do what they want to do. Yes, we need to follow disclosures. We need to make sure there’s no conflicts of interest. We need to follow all of these procedures. But what I also found during the China Initiative, there was also this chilling climate in which there’s an overinterpretation that may put institutions at risk. And to my knowledge, institutions were not at risk to the extent to which their scientists, especially those of Chinese descent, felt scrutinized.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

We have a raised hand from Dan Whitman.

Q: OK, I think I’m unmuted. Thank you, Irina.

And thanks, Professor Lee, for mentioning the Great Wall that that prevents us from dealing with even Europeans who have subsidized education or Africans who have no money. And just an anecdote, since you have welcomed anecdotes, I am an adjunct at George Washington University. But totally unrelated to that, just for free and just for fun, pro bono, nobody pays, nobody gets paid. A course that I’m giving by webinar, it’s zero cost. The topic is crisis management, but it could be any topic. And in that group, which there are about eighty people who tune in twice a week, fifteen Kenyans, twenty-five Ukrainians, and forty Kazakhs. I mean, I don’t know if there’s ever been exchange between Kazakhstan and Kenya.

Anyway, my point is things can be done. We share it for free. What motivates the students? A certificate. It’s so easy to give them a certificate. And in many countries, they very highly value that, even though it’s not a—there’s no formality, there’s no formal academic credit. But the students are very motivated. And possibly, there may be universities in the U.S. that could—that might want to give a professor a small stipendium to do an informal webinar course, which would create connections, which would be zero cost, basically, and would bridge that gap of funding that you’ve alluded to. Thank you.

LEE: Yeah. Dan, thank you for that. And I think this leads to a kind of a spin-off comment about certificates. Absolutely. Micro-credentials or alternative forms of education, where there’s maybe not a full-fledged undergraduate degree but some certificate, I think, is important niche, especially for returning adults or communities where they’re not able to afford to take time off. So that flexibility, and obviously now with online education, just becomes so much more accessible and very low cost.

Something else to keep in mind, though, is that, depending on the institution you’re from, that will make a difference in certificates. I mean, an institution like George Washington University offering a certificate may have some symbolic or perceived value that may be higher than an institution that is lower or are not ranked at all. So this is where, unfortunately—I’m a big critic of global rankings. But unfortunately, it does play a role in how that certificate is being perceived and the attractiveness of that certificate. But absolutely, this is definitely a way to open access especially for places in the world that just cannot physically move or have the funds to support their studies.

FASKIANOS: Great. There are two comments/questions in the Q&A that I wanted to give you a chance to respond to about Africa, from Tutaleni Asino and Fodei Batty. Dr. Asino talks about English is the language of instruction and governments in Africa where they’re funding education to a higher degree, and thinks that there are opportunities there, but it sounds like all fifty-four countries are grouped together. And Dr. Batty talks a little bit about there are a lot of students from African countries pursuing graduate education in the United States. But South Africa is usually an exception to the higher education American norm in Africa. Most South Africans don’t like to travel, especially travel to America. I thought maybe you could just clarify some—respond to those comments.

LEE: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you for sharing those comments. There’s a book I edited called Intra-Africa Student Mobility. And I agree with the comments. And one of the things I didn’t mention that I think is important to help us understand the broader global context is that there’s actually considerable international activity within the continent. And there’s actually considerable intra-Africa mobility within the continent. South Africa is the most important country player in Sub-Saharan Africa. It is globally ranked—has more globally ranked institutions than any other African country. And so South Africa then becomes an important hub. And, yes, as an English-speaking, among many other languages, country, that does attract African students to go oftentimes for a similar sense of shared culture, despite sometimes different languages and customs and backgrounds. And yet, nevertheless, South Africa is an important player within the continent.

Not to say that there is no international mobility occurring, but there is increased capacity within the continent that would allow students and interested students to travel within the continent. Not the same extent, of course, as Europe. But the least we’re seeing that rise over time. And so it’s called Intra-Africa Student Mobility. Chika Sehoole and I coedited the book. We were able to get about eight African scholars to talk about the various reasons students would choose that particular African country, and what draw them.

And what was really interesting about this phenomenon is that it goes against this prevailing notion of Africa’s victim of brain drain or all going to the north. That’s actually not what is happening. But that there is capacity building within the continent. So in trying to answer a different question, I skirted over a lot of the things I could go further into. But hopefully that book will shed light on what’s happening within that continent, at least from the perspective of eight different countries.

FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Thank you for that.

I’m going to go next to Jonathan Scriven at Washington Adventist University in Maryland: What are some of the strategies universities are using to make education more affordable in the United States? If that is a challenge, are schools investing more or less in setting up campuses in foreign countries as a way to reach foreign students?

LEE: I’m just going to read over that question. OK, yeah. Great question, Jonathan. So what’s happening in my institution and many others is a way to attract students is we’re providing considerable aid, merit aid, financial aid, aid even to international students. The majority may not even be paying the full sticker price. Now this, of course, will affect the revenue that would have otherwise been generated, but nevertheless is a way to deal with the fierce competition across U.S. institutions for these top students. So how to make it affordable? There’s a lot of aid going around at the undergraduate, not just the graduate, levels.

And so what are institutions doing? Well, for example, at the University of Arizona for our dual degrees, it’s a fraction of the cost of what it would cost to be a student at our main campus. When you have a combination of hybrid or online delivery with a campus partner maybe providing most of the gen ed’s and then we would teach most of the major courses as an example, that does significantly lower the cost where that student will still get a bona fide University of Arizona degree, just like they would at main campus. So these alternative forms of delivery certainly make it more affordable, especially for those that opt to stay in their home country and receive an online education, or a flipped classroom model, or a dual degree.

FASKIANOS: Great. Denis Simon, if you can—why don’t you ask your question?

Q: Here I am. OK.

Recently, on a trip to China in September, a number of faculty have told me they’re no longer wanting to send their best students abroad. They want to keep them in China. And this is all part of the rise of Chinese universities, et cetera. And so it may not be simply the souring of Sino-U.S. relations that has causal effect here, but simply the fact that China now is becoming a major, you know, educational powerhouse. And that also could change the dynamics. For example, even the BRI countries could start to send their students to China instead of sending them to the United States. Do you see anything evolving like this or—and what might be the outcome?

LEE: Yeah. Spot on, David. That halo effect of a U.S. degree is not the same as it was when I was a university student. Chinese students, as well as students in the world, are much more savvy. They have access to information. They have access to rankings. They know all universities are not the same. And they know that they have some institutions that are highly ranked and may offer better quality education than the U.S. So that the image of a U.S. degree, of course, is not as universally perceived as it may have been, I don’t know, pre-internet, or without the—all sorts of rankings in which institutions are rated against one another. And absolutely, Chinese institutions are very difficult to get into, fiercely competitive, producing far more scientific output than some of our leading institutions.

And there’s another factor when it comes to Asian culture just more broadly speaking, is that social network tie. Sociologists refer to it as social capital. When a Chinese student, a Korean student, Japanese student decides to study in the United States, they may lose that social tie that may possibly put them in a disadvantage when they decide to come back and compete for a position when they may just have that U.S. credential, but may have either lessened or no longer have that relationship that may have allowed them to get a position at the university, or in a place where that alumni network would have been especially useful.

So again, I don’t want to generalize, you know, in any place to the world, but there is that component that I think sometimes is missed in the literature. Maintaining that social network is pretty key, especially as jobs, of course, global, you know, unemployment—places where students are competing for positions need to have every edge possible. So that also can be part of that reason they decide to stay.

FASKIANOS: Great. The next question from Michael Kulma, who’s at the University of Chicago. He’s following on David Moore’s comments about Florida: Do you know how many other states in the U.S. are enacting or are considering such policies against partnerships with China?

LEE: I do not know the answer. So if anyone wants to raise their hand and share about their own state, or put it on the answer part of the question and answer. There are related concerns about DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Some of that may spill over to China. Hopefully, at some point at the Council of Foreign Relations will have a discussion on Israel and Hamas conflict and how institutions are dealing with that. And so we’re seeing a pretty challenging political environment that is clearly spilling over to our classrooms and to our international activities, our domestic recruitment. But I’m not answering your question, Michael. (Laughs.) I’ll leave it up to someone else to answer.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. So we don’t have very much time left. I thought maybe you could, given your research and expertise, could suggest resources—recommend resources for higher ed leaders and administrators to better understand how to promote collaboration.

LEE: Sure. So promoting collaboration, it really—each person at a time. You know, again, MOUs may be signed, and maybe overarching presidents will come together and have an agreement, but there’s no guarantee that will ever happen. I’d love to do a study on how many MOUs never actually materialized into real action. So where do we begin? International affairs SIOs out there, identify who are your area studies experts? Who are your visiting postdocs? Who are your Fulbright scholars from other parts of the world? They all represent their own network and are certainly are valuable resources to consider. What I’ve sometimes have heard even at my own institution is, you know, how do we bring these people to the table? Why are they not at the table to begin with, and then how do we bring them there?

And this is a relatively low-cost way to go about this, right? Like, faculty engaged in service. What kind of opportunities can your university provide for faculty service that is aligned with their area of expertise, the areas of the world they represent, the networks they have? And many of—some of you already have experienced this directly. These partnerships often begin with our alumni, international—former international students who decide to go back home. So, again, there’s just a lot of exciting opportunity. I love this field because it’s never boring. There’s always new ways to grow, expand new partners. But it really does begin with that essential element of trust. And that often begins with our own institutions and identifying those who’ve already started to build that network.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you very much. Really appreciate your being with us and for sharing your expertise and background, Dr. Lee. It’s been fantastic. And to all of you, for your questions and comments, and sharing your experiences as well. You can follow Dr. Lee on X, the app formerly known as Twitter, at @JennyJ_Lee. I will send out a link to this webinar, the transcript, and the video, as well as the link to the book—your book that you mentioned, and any other resources that you want to share with the group.

And I encourage you all to follow @CFR_academic on X, visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues. We also—just putting in a plug for our other series, Academic Webinar series, which is designed for students. We just sent out the winter/spring lineup and we hope that you will share that with your colleagues and your students. It is a great way for them to have access to practitioner scholars and to talk with students from around the country. So if you haven’t received that lineup, you can email [email protected], and we will share that with you.

So, again, thank you, Jenny, for being with us, and to all of you. And wishing you safe and happy holidays. And good luck closing out this semester before we get to the holidays. (Laughs.) So thank you again.


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