Just as recent articles have suggested that ‘kangaroos can bounce’ to reflect the potential resurgence as a favoured international student destination of Australia post-pandemic, there is every reason to believe the US eagle can soar under a Biden administration.
In his acceptance speech as president-elect, Joe Biden said: “For American educators, it’s a great day for you all”, and that must include higher education institutions looking to regain their place as the favoured destination for international students. While there’s new hope and opportunity, it will be important to reflect on recent lessons and the changing world if the recovery is to last.
The good news is that President-Elect Biden was part of the administration that saw international student numbers rise 44.9%, from 623,119 to 903,127, between 2009-10 and 2016-17. A repeat of that performance would see enrolments grow to 1.26 million by 2025 from the 2018 base of 872,000.
But there are three key steps that need to be taken – building recognition of the economic value of international students, ensuring understanding of the part they play in securing global soft power and getting the basics of visa and post-study work right.
The creeping malaise of anti-science, alternative facts, reinvention of history and downright lying in recent years should be a sobering wake-up call for institutions. Their connection with the broader population and, perhaps ultimately, their place in society is challenged and nowhere more so than in the US.
It is time to get serious about integration with communities, better communication, making sure that graduates get jobs and developing the country’s understanding of universities as generators of wealth.
Economic benefits and soft power
International students contribute US$41 billion to the US economy and support more than 450,000 US jobs, but that story needs telling in the good times rather than waiting for the bad.
In a 2016 report for NAFSA, Giovanni Peri and Gaetano Basso estimated that the 10 states with the most international students – which, in addition to New York and California, include heartland states such as Ohio, Illinois and the swing states of Michigan and Pennsylvania – stand to gain nearly US$8.3 billion in wages and US$283 million in state taxes.
There are millions of jobs at stake for all Americans, including those who voted Republican, but the role of universities and their precarious financial future hardly registered on the election landscape.
US universities also need to point out more aggressively the ‘elephant in the room’ that is China. The ability of the US to dominate global economics and build strategic alliances is partly based on the soft power it is able to exercise through having US-educated leaders in government and industry around the world.
Universities have helped the US into a position of power, but this has been eroded in recent years to the extent that the competition see an opportunity to strike.
In 2018 Wang Huiyao, founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, was explicit about the country’s ambition. He said: “We are still lagging behind the US on soft power … There are more than 300 world leaders, including presidents, prime ministers and ministers around the globe that graduated from US universities, but only a few foreign leaders that graduated from Chinese universities, so we still need to exercise effort to boost academic exchange and educate more political elites from other countries.”
China’s long-term goal is to host 500,000 students by 2020 and it had reached 490,000 by 2017. It is currently the third most popular destination of study after the US and the UK and is within striking distance of the latter (it is expected to surpass the UK in the near future).
The increasing quality of institutions and range of courses, often taught in English, have seen nearly 50% of international students in China now enrolled on degree programmes, including 75,800 graduate students.
Post-study work opportunities
The wider benefits of attracting international students and the way in which they support America’s global influence are two important factors and better communication of these is called for. But this requires long-term campaigns to win the hearts and minds of policy-makers and the public. More immediate benefit can come from simple wins in visa administration, work visas and post-study work opportunities.
Being able to work after completing a degree has been a driver of growth in Australia, Canada and the UK, and Optional Practical Training is an American version that, since 2008, has allowed students a 29-month post-study work period. Critically, the Obama administration expanded the number of eligible fields of study by about 90 to 400 in 2012. The numbers in the programme exploded from 94,919 in 2012-13 to 175,695 by 2016-17.
While international students may not be at the top of Biden’s priority list and COVID-19 and reducing spiralling unemployment will undoubtedly take priority, one would think that Biden will be quick to relax travel restrictions and issue orders to be far more welcoming to international students, given they contribute US$41 billion to the US economy and support more than 450,000 US jobs.
Other visa priorities include:
• Increasing acceptance for student F1 visa applications. The 2019 student visa refusal rate of 35% is currently continuing to undermine recruitment.
• Rescinding July 2020 guidance issued by immigration authorities which says that foreign students will no longer be able to stay in the country if their courses move fully online in the autumn.
• Rescinding the proposed policy that, if enacted, would limit international student visas for those born in countries associated with high visa overstay rates to either two or four years.
A ‘soaring eagle’ is not good news for the other dominant English-speaking study destinations. The US has always been the preferred destination for most international students who can afford to study there. It’s likely that Australia will remain highly competitive because of its proximity to Asia, the largest market of international students, but Canada and the UK are almost certain to feel the pressure of a resurgent US.
But there is good news all round for students when it comes to making the case for international higher education. The US could join the list of countries with well-ranked universities that are developing increasingly benevolent post-study work regimes, more flexible visa policies and innovative routes to study.
They will also find smart institutions providing evidence of the return on investment for the degree by giving data-backed evidence of graduate career outcomes, both in country and for those returning home.