Protest in Hong Kong, October 2019 | FreedomFungPhotography /

University leaders in Hong Kong have a problem. College students have been among the most visible and vocal protesters over 21 weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations. They account for a fifth of those arrested since June, according to the South China Morning News.

The students are calling on university vice-chancellors to condemn police brutality. They want the leaders of institutions that seek to cultivate critical thought to support them in speaking out.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government, meanwhile, thinks administrators should denounce protesters’ sometimes violent tactics and the disruption they have caused throughout the city. Caught in the middle, the chairmen of the governing councils of the eight publicly-funded universities issued a statement saying higher education should not be dragged into the “vortex of politics.”

It’s too late. Universities in Hong Kong have already been drawn into that vortex. And that’s also the case for colleges in the United States, although the context is different here than in Hong Kong.

Colleges have been plaintiffs challenging the travel ban and central players in debates over visa and immigration policy. Intelligence officials have homed in on campuses as potential soft targets for foreign spies. The Education Department has mounted an investigation of universities’ international research funding, an inquiry that seems as motivated by suspicions of broader foreign influence as by bookkeeping concerns. Just the other week, the Trump administration forbid Chinese dipomats from visiting American campuses without permission, a tit-for-tat that reflects the strained relations between the two countries.

Why is higher education in the middle of the maelstrom? Partly it’s the nature of college campuses as cradles of free expression — and also of dissent. That’s as true in Hong Kong today as it was at places like Berkeley and Columbia in the 1960s.

But it’s also a function of the forces that dominate current political thinking, at home and abroad. Nationalism. National security. Strength through innovation. As Robert Daly, who heads up China policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told me, both the United States and China see knowledge as fundamental to 21st century power.

Through this lens, universities are America’s greatest advantage and a source of vulnerability.

On campus, people feel buffeted by the political winds and confused. They want clarification of shifting rules and guidance on how to harden universities against espionage while remaining open to international collaboration.

I don’t want to minimize such concerns. But I also remember when I switched from covering Congress to the higher-education beat more than a dozen years ago. Back then, I would hear complaints about universities’ lack of clout in D.C. We’re not even in the room, people would lament to me.

Well, higher ed’s in the vortex now. What will it make of it?

Tell me your thoughts! As always, you can reach me at or on Twitter @karinfischer.

China Moves Ahead

China is signaling that it’s not holding back as it seeks to develop the capacity and the quality of its higher education system. Last week it assembled more than 40 Nobel laureates to talk about scientific advancement. China is open to global scientific collaboration, President Xi Jinping said in a letter to participants.

At the same time, the Ministry of Education announced a three-year revamp of undergraduate education. The plan redirects more faculty time to undergraduate instruction, toughens graduation requirements, and seeks to bring 10,000 national-level courses and 10,000 provincial-level courses to “top quality” by 2021.

Pathway Provider Layoffs

Navitas, the Australia-based global education company, had a round of U.S. layoffs last week. In a written statement, Brian Stevenson, the president and chief executive of Navitas North America, said:

“Navitas is undertaking a strategic realignment of our U.S. operations in order to position our partnerships for long-term success and to ensure we are well-placed to meet the changing demands of international students looking to study in America.”

A spokeswoman would not confirm the number of staff members who had been laid off nor make Stevenson available to talk in specifics about the strategic realignment. But the cutbacks come at a crucial time for companies like Navitas, which works with nine American colleges as part of what’s known as a pathways model. In pathways, private companies partner with colleges to recruit international students who might not otherwise meet direct admissions requirements and put them through a bridge program to bring them up to speed.

Pathways programs have had success in countries like Australia and Britain, but in the U.S., the outcomes over the past decade have been more mixed. (This Elizabeth Redden package is a good primer.) As international enrollments at American colleges soften, such public-private partnerships may be at a crossroads: On one hand, colleges could benefit from pursuing nontraditional recruitment methods. On the other, these relationships require investment and commitment.

I’d be interested in hearing from readers about the direction you think pathways programs will take. I’ll share any comments next week.

Around the Globe

Students at Northwestern’s campus in Qatar staged a silent protest over what they say is a lack of attention to their concerns by university administrators.

Governments in some 60 countries have taken restrictive and repressive measures against universities, according to a new report.

The University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music canceled its philharmonic’s tour of China after three South Korean student musicians were denied visas.

The London School of Economics put a proposed China program on hold after faculty opposition. Its benefactor had argued that alternatives to the Tiananmen Square crackdown “would have been far worse.”

Saudi Arabia will allow foreign universities to open branch campuses.

Nearly 70 million Americans speak a foreign language at home, nearly triple the number who did in 1980.

In a throwback to the Mao era, Chinese students are being recruited to spy on their professors. It’s part of curbs on academic freedom at Chinese universities.

The head of a Confucius Institute in Brussels was accused of espionageand banned from Belgium.

International students in France may escape a tuition hike after a court ruled that free access to public education is a constitutional right.

Last week’s “And finally…” had a faulty link. Here’s the correct one.

A New Look

No, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: This is a new look for the newsletter. Starting this week, latitude(s) will become part of the family of Open Campus newsletters.

Open Campus is a nonprofit news organization, started by my former colleagues Sara Hebel and Scott Smallwood. It’s built around a simple, yet powerful, premise: That more thoughtful, aggressive coverage of all parts of the American higher education system can help decrease public cynicism. Drawing on philanthropic resources, they hope to put more reporters on the higher-ed beat across the country. And they want to support smart, sophisticated national coverage like latitude(s).

If this sounds like something you can get behind, you can contribute through NewsMatch, a national matching-gift campaign that drives donations to nonprofit newsrooms around the country. Now through December 31, NewsMatch will double your gift to Open Campus.

Meanwhile, bookmark this link for future editions of latitude(s), and encourage your friends to sign up to get the newsletter in their inbox every Monday. You can still read back issues over on Substack.

And finally…

As many of you know ̶c̶a̶n̶’̶t̶ ̶a̶v̶o̶i̶d̶, I’m a lifelong baseball fan. So I’ve been on a several-day high ever since my Washington Nationals became the WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS!!!

Readers, thank you for humoring me throughout the October playoffs, as my Twitter timeline skewed toward baseball. Thank you for the shoutouts, the kind notes, the story pitches with the subject line “Go Nats!” Even some Yankees fans were cheering for my team:

I’m going to return to my regular programming of visa headaches, scrutiny of international research ties, and all the other staples of global higher education coverage. But before I do, let me share one last baseball link, about one of my favorite players, National closer Sean Doolittle: He carries a lightsaber to clubhouse celebrations. He checks out a bookstore in every city the team visits. And he’s not going to the White House on Monday, in part because of President Trump’s treatment of refugees.

’Til next week — Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.