Tongue Tied: How Budget Cuts to International Education Will Hurt the U.S.

  • Share
  • Read Later

When Congress handed down the budget resolution for the 2011 fiscal year in April, widespread cuts were to be expected. But when an eleventh hour cut to international education programs was wedged in, those Americans whose job it is to know about the rest of the world saw it as an assault both on their studies and U.S. diplomacy around the world.

Under the Continuing Resolution budget agreement, $50 million, or about 40% of the Department of Education’s budget for International Education and Foreign Language Studies programs was slashed, reducing the total allocation to $76 million. (They had hoped to receive more than $125 million.) The cuts, which will likely force the scaling back of some critical language programs, come at time when the U.S. needs to approach tumultuous events such as the upheavals of the Arab Spring and the rising might of China with as much savvy and guile as possible.

The programs on the chopping block are those funded by Title VI, which funds programs in addition to the critical language courses such as international business programs, training for study abroad programs, among others. Additionally, funding for two programs under Fulbright-Hays, which would have funded both doctoral dissertation research and faculty research abroad, were completely zeroed out.

“This community fully expected to take its portion of cuts like everyone else because of the deficit, but this was disproportional,” said Miriam Kazanjian, a consultant with the Coalition for International Education, a group of collegiate organizations that works to promote U.S. global competence. “Some of these programs are already so small.”

Going under the knife are some programs that were originally designed 50 years ago to counter research gains by the Soviet Union, such as its launch of Sputnik 1, which brought attention to the emergence of sophisticated technologies and international security threats.  “These programs survived all these years because they really produce results,” Kazanjian told TIME.

Students enrolled in these programs often end up being big players in the world of international relations, Kazanjian said. Among those who have benefited from Title VI and/or Fulbright-Hays funds are Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who studied Russian and East European studies, Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller and James Collins, the former ambassador to Russia. Recipients of these grants line the ranks of influential institutions like Council of Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institute, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

For its part, the Obama Administration says it remains committed to international education despite the massive cuts. “The President and Secretary of Education recognize the value of these programs in our multilingual society,” Jane Glickman, spokeswoman for the Department of Education told TIME. “But these are tough economic times. We’re all tightening our belts.”

Still, these cuts come on the heels of an internal audit by the Government Accountability Office in June 2010 that found a substantial absence of skilled foreign-language speakers in national security departments and agencies. (A pdf of the audit is here.) Ironically, the programs that are now being cut were the same ones that received an increase in funding after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the government sought more graduates with fluency in languages like Pashto, the predominate language in Afghanistan. Prior to 9/11 there was not even one university in the U.S. teaching Pashto, Kazanjian said. Now, thanks to grants from Title VI, there are six institutions nationwide, instructing 128 students in the language.

At National Resource Centers nationwide, which are facing more than $18 million in cuts (about 47% of their total budget), in addition to Pashto, students learn what are considered “critical” languages, including Arabic, Chinese and Urdu. In total, according to Kazanjian, the National Resource Centers teach 130 languages, while for their part, the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute — with its much larger budget — and the  Defense Language Institute combined only teach some 75.

While the Department of Education hasn’t yet dictated exactly which of international education programs will sustain cuts, likely all will face some sort of reduction in resources — a fact that leaves those who would like to see U.S. diplomacy augmented rather than undermined feeling as though Congress is speaking another language.

(Petitions to stem cuts to these programs, created by the Facebook group’s Save Title VI Funding and Save Fulbright-Hays Programs, are available online here and here.)