The US government wants to slash its most prestigious global exchange - the Fulbright Program. While the planned cuts would affect traditional partners in Western Europe, new programs are slated for other world regions.
If the Obama administration's proposed education and cultural exchange budget for next year passes Congress unchanged, fewer students and scholars could study abroad via the venerable Fulbright Program due to an unprecedented $30 million, or 13 percent, cut to the program.
"I think the Fulbright Program is very successful and it's not a wise decision to cut something which for decades has been successful and has really helped strengthen the ties between America and Germany," Erwin Neher, a German 1991 Nobel laureate in Physiology and Medicine and a US Fulbright student in 1966, told DW.
Neher is one of 53 Nobel Prize winners among the 355,000 alumni strong global Fulbright community which also includes 29 heads of states or government, 80 Pulitzer Prize winners, numerous top academics and business leaders and spans across more than 150 countries.
"Flagship" under pressure
So why slash what the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) itself calls its "flagship international academic exchange program" while the overall budget for educational and cultural exchange goes up by 1.6 percent?
A State Department official told DW: "The Fulbright program stands as one of the most respected programs of the U.S. government and is still the most highly-funded program in ECA’s proposed budget. Fulbright remains ECA’s largest educational exchange program, playing an important role in building relationships and helping to develop the leaders of tomorrow. ECA’s budget will increase the overall number of exchanges by doing more short-term programming, thereby maximizing the number of participants."
The State Department did not address DW's specific questions about the cuts to the Fulbright Program. But a closer look at the budget helps answer that question.
It reveals a regional shift away from Europe in favor of Asia and Africa.
That's because at the same time the Fulbright Program is earmarked for a hefty cut, two new programs focusing on Africa and Asia, the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and the Young South-East Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) are scheduled for launch. Their proposed budget matches almost dollar for dollar the $30 million slashed from Fulbright. In addition, a new Fulbright University Vietnam is slated to support "academic freedom and autonomy in developing new curricula".
That's not a new trend: "There has been a big shift away from our Western European programs," says Stephen Reilly, executive director of the US Fulbright Association, the largest of Fulbright's national alumni organizations, which has not been consulted on the plans. He notes that originally Fulbright funding was generally split with the US government paying 2/3 and foreign governments 1/3.
"As we started to pull funding away from Western Europe and move it to other parts around the world, Europe has stepped in - in some cases now they are providing 2/3 of that funding. In the case of Austria, 2/3 of that funding actually comes from the Austrian government."
But it's not just a geographic shift that is affecting the Fulbright Program. There is also a strategic reorientation of US cultural programs away from a long-term focus toward short-term objectives. For 2015 the State Department has slated $18 million for a new program called Exchanges Rapid Response (ERR).
"Rapid response" exchange
"There were some strategic shifts I would say in order to be able to take a different angle of doing some short-term targeted programs," is how a State Department spokeswoman explained the cuts to the Fulbright Program in March. "To that end there was the desire to be able to redistribute things."
"That reminds me of many other instances where politicians are involved and look only for the horizon of the current period in office," says Nobel laureate Neher about this new short-term orientation. "A program like the Fulbright Program which is dedicated to the education of young people really cannot be designed to have short-term effect. You invite a young student to the United States or the other way around and this will have effects for the life span of this person."
Reilly doesn't oppose new short-term initiatives, but thinks they shouldn't come at the expense of the Fulbright Program. "They are in our opinion losing sight of what the Fulbright Program originally intended to do and has in fact lived up to for the last 70 years which is truly creating a mutual understanding between peoples of the world. And you can't do that in a four-week or six-week program."
Opposition against cuts
To stave off the planned cuts, Fulbright supporters have launched an online petition "Save Fulbright" which has so far garnered more than 25,000 signatures. According to the petition, "if these cuts were applied to the part of the Fulbright Program for US students and US scholars, over 40 percent of the awards would be jeopardized."
And that's not all. Should the planned budget pass Congress, it could trigger a reciprocal move by Washington's international partners that together could seriously cripple the Fulbright Program.
"Why should say Germany maintain the same kind of support if the partner is pulling back," asks Neher, urging US legislators to "think twice and ask yourself whether you are helping or hurting the development of international relations."
German support for Fulbright
At least for now, Berlin has no plans to cuts its funding for the German-American Fulbright Program, one of the biggest and oldest of the currently 50 binational commissions, which has sponsored over 40,000 Germans and Americans to study abroad.
"It would be very regrettable if the planned cuts for this extremely successful transatlantic program would become reality," Jürgen Hardt, the German government's transatlantic coordinator told DW. "The German government stands by the Fulbright Program and will keep its funding for next year at the same level as in previous years."