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A Rare Bright Spot

The Council of Graduate Schools released its fall 2019 enrollment survey, and for the first time since 2016, it actually showed growth, with the number of first-time graduate students from abroad ticking up by 4 percent. A big reason for that was continued increases from China, which accounts for nearly four in 10 international graduate students in the United States. Sub-Saharan Africa registered particularly big percentage gains, of 22 percent.

Still, American universities have fewer international master’s students than in 2017 because of the cumulative effect of the past years’ declines.

Let’s dig into the numbers!

The data for Iranian students seem to substantiate the reported problems they have had obtaining visas or being admitted to the country by U.S. customs officials. Applications from Iranian students actually increased modestly, by 2 percent, but enrollments fell by 7 percent. Students from Iran were supposed to get a carve-out in the travel ban, but their continued struggles could spell tough times ahead for graduate programs. Though Iran is the 13th-largest source of international students, only three other foreign countries account for more doctoral students.

Speaking of visas, in a flash survey conducted a month ago, 123 of 174 universities reported an uptick in delays in students’ visa processing and 84 reported delays or denials at ports of entry. Students from China, Iran, Libya, and Saudi Arabia came in for special scrutiny, respondents said. Meanwhile, the recent expansion of the travel ban targets some of the very countries, such as Nigeria, that have recently experienced robust growth. Students are exempted from the latest travel prohibitions, but perceptions that the U.S. is unwelcoming could continue to dog graduate programs.

New enrollments from India, second only to China as the top source of students, were essentially flat for the second year in a row. That’s a break from the volatility of the past decade. During that time, Indian numbers have soared by as much as 40 percent and dipped by 13 percent. Those swings have been felt acutely by master’s and certificate programs, which enroll 86 percent of Indian graduate students.

One final takeaway: A benefit of the CGS data is its close-to-real-time nature — universities were surveyed between late September and Thanksgiving. Still, think of all the changes that have happened in just these last few months: the new travel ban, a fresh round of visa revocations, the coronavirus outbreak. Surveys like CGS provide a clear picture of what’s been happening, but the future for international recruitment appears increasingly unsettled.

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Agents Predict Coronavirus Will Hurt Recruitment

As if to underscore this new era of uncertainty, two-thirds of Chinese student-recruitment agents said they expect the number of students from China studying abroad to decline in the next year. The survey, conducted by the Beijing Overseas Study Service Association and the China Overseas Study Service Alliance, found that short-term programs, such as summer camps for high-school students, were among those most immediately affected by the coronavirus. Twenty-eight percent of education agents reported that students had changed their choice of destination countries, with the countries shifted away from including the U.S., Australia, and Britain. While a majority of those surveyed said they expected a temporary fall-off in student numbers because of coronavirus, a like number predicted that students would ultimately follow their original plans to study overseas.

Some other coronavirus developments:

  • The Institute of International Education is conducting a survey of the impact of coronavirus on U.S. higher education.
  • NAFSA: Association of International Educators will hold a virtual town hall on coronavirus this Thursday.
  • China will relax Internet restrictions to allow some 100,000 students to study online after they were blocked from returning to their campuses in Australia. The timing of summer break and the Lunar New Year has exacerbated the coronavirus’ impact on Australian higher education.
  • Chinese academics have circulated a letter criticizing the government’s response to the outbreak, in particular its reprimand of a doctor for warning people about coronavirus. Li Wenliang later died of the respiratory illness.

Budget Proposal Axes Exchange Programs

A proposed budget released by the White House would make serious cuts to academic exchanges and other international-education programs. The budget would eliminate all international and foreign-language programs under the Department of Education, which the Trump administration says are duplicative of programs offered by other federal agencies. In addition, the budget proposes cutting by more than half the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which runs the flagship Fulbright Program and other academic and cultural exchanges. The budget document argues that the U.S. should have a more limited set of exchanges that meet critical government needs. A smaller number would also allow ECA to have better oversight, the budget document says, citing inadequate monitoring of cooperative agreements.

The president’s budget is just a starting point, of course, and in the past, there has been bipartisan support in Congress for funding international-education programs, even when initial cuts have been proposed. Whether such consensus exists currently, however, is an open question.

Inquiry Into Universities’ Foreign Funds Widens

The number of colleges caught up in a Department of Education investigation into gifts and contracts from foreign sources continues to grow. The latest: Harvard and Yale. In a pair of letters, the Education Department suggested that the two universities had failed to fully report all foreign funding and appeared to urge a thorough accounting of all programs, activities, and people supported money from overseas governments and donors, no matter how small. That demand would seem to go beyond the provisions of federal law as understood by most colleges. Last week the department released a revised version of a new information collection form for foreign gifts.

A little-noticed December settlement with a Michigan research institute could offer a clue to a potential endgame for the government’s scrutiny of colleges’ overseas ties. The Van Andel Research Institute agreed to pay $5.5 million for failing to disclose Chinese government grants to two researchers who also were receiving National Institutes of Health funding.

Around the Globe

The State Department announced the colleges that produce the most Fulbright students and scholars.

China released new regulations for ideological education on university campuses. This Twitter thread has an excellent breakdown.

A new report from Moody’s Investor Services predicts a brighter outlook for UK higher education, in part because of growth in international student numbers.

Egyptian authorities have detained a graduate student studying gender on accusations of incitement and spreading false news.

President Vladimir Putin has called for the closure of low-performing universities.

Polish academics are raising alarms about government plans to create a committee to rule on alleged free-speech violations at universities.

Scientists in Indonesia fear government interference after a leading researcher studying environmental damage caused by development and wildfires was ordered out of the country.

Australia’s Monash University has been given permission to open the first foreign university in Indonesia.

Members of Congress have introduced a resolution that would recognize the value of international education and exchanges to national security, foreign policy, and economic competitiveness.

I welcome your ideas for coverage. Send them to latitudesnews@gmail.com or find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

And finally …

By the time this newsletter hits your inbox, I’ll be back in D.C. — the travel gods willing! — for the annual conference of the Association of International Education Administrators. I look forward to AIEA each year as a chance to connect with some of the most thoughtful people in international ed and to take the pulse of new and developing trends. If you’ll be there, I hope you’ll say hello. If not — well, you know I’ll be tweeting.

I’ll also be speaking. Here are three times to catch me:

  • On Monday at 9:30 a.m. I’ll be part of a pre-AIEA session on international students and free speech organized by ISEP and the Free Speech Project at Georgetown at the Omni Shoreham.
  • On Tuesday at 4:45 p.m. I’ll moderate a roundtable on the role of international educators in a new reality — a topic I wrote about last year.
  • On Wednesday at 11:45 a.m., I’ve got an all-star panel of D.C.-area international students sharing their perspective on studying in America.

’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.