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The State Perspective

Back in 2018, President Trump came close to imposing a blanket ban on Chinese students.

He was talked out of it by Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China. But it was not Branstad’s familiarity with China that won the day — it was his experience as a six-term governor of Iowa. He understood that when public-college budgets took a beating during the last recession, international students, and particularly students from China, were a crucial financial lifeline. Without their tuition dollars, deep cuts might have been deeper, tuition hikes for local students might’ve been steeper.

Branstad argued that the economic consequences of barring Chinese students could be especially damaging in the heartland, in states like his that had voted for Trump. His case convinced the president.

I’ve been thinking about this incident in recent days as I watch the intense lobbying campaign ahead of a possible presidential order that could affect international students, among others. Higher ed, the business community, and members of Congress, including some Republicans, are weighing in to support optional practical training, the work program for international graduates.

But missing from the discussion are governors and state legislators, people like Branstad. Their absence seems striking given the nexus between international tuition and public-college finances — and as a new economic crisis is almost certain to lead to budgetary belt-tightening in the states and on campuses.

The restrictions on OPT rumored to be included in an upcoming order could lessen student interest in studying in the United States of America. Shouldn’t voices from the states be part of the debate?

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The Current State of Play

The contours of a possible executive order began to come into clearer focus this week. Here’s some of what I’m hearing … with the caveat that given the lobbying tug-of-war, provisions are subject to change.

How could the EO affect OPT?

The so-called STEM extension could be rolled back. Put in place under the George W. Bush administration and expanded by President Obama, it allows students in STEM fields to work for up to three years post-graduation, rather than one year, as in the original OPT program. Also under consideration: adding academic qualifications for OPT, restricting participation to top students.

How does the administration define top students?

That’s unclear. It’s possible a GPA cut-off could be put in place, or that students would have to score in a certain percentile of their graduating class or academic program. It could also be institutionally based, with only students from top-ranked colleges allowed to take part. Additionally, it’s uncertain if such restrictions would be limited to STEM OPT or would be applied to OPT as a whole.

How quickly will the measure take effect?

The provisions of the April executive order, barring some green-card applicants, were implemented within just a few days. But when it comes to OPT, the new proclamation is expected to trigger a rulemaking process to change the regulations that govern the program.

Whew — so we have some time?

Yes, but. For one, given that this is an election year, the administration will almost certainly seek to expedite the normally pokey regulatory process. And while the executive order has been framed as temporary economic relief in response to covid-related job losses, a OPT rule change would be long-lasting and more difficult for opponents to undo.

Will the restrictions be retroactive?

It does not appear as if students currently on OPT or STEM OPT would be affected. When it comes to pending applicants, it’s more of a gray area.

What else is in the order besides OPT?

The measure would suspend the H-1B work visa, barring new holders from outside the country from coming to the U.S. Many H-1B applicants are former international students, but universities also rely on the H-1B to hire foreign-born researchers and academics. In addition, the suspension could affect J visa applicants. The J restrictions, however, seem focused on short-term cultural exchanges, not on scholars coming to the United States for academic exchange.

Censoring Zoom

A decision by Zoom to shut down the accounts of two U.S.-based Chinese activists in raising alarm bells on American campuses. The closure of the account came after the activists held a Zoom event marking the 31st anniversary of the violent crackdown on pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square.

Why this matters to higher education: When the coronavirus drove classes online, many colleges turned to the video conferencing and webinar platform to finish out the semester. Professors had raised concerns that China’s Great Firewall could limit the access Chinese students have to certain materials or affect their ability to take part in the discussion of potentially sensitive subjects, effectively censoring American classrooms. Zoom’s action confirms their fears. Will this spur colleges to do more to ensure academic freedom for all students, no matter where in the world covid has dispersed them?

For more on this issue, I recommend a Twitter thread (including replies) started by James Millward, a historian of China at Georgetown:

Bill Restricts Confucius Institutes

Legislation passed by the U.S. Senate would place new restrictions on colleges that host Confucius Institutes. The Concerns Over Nations Funding University Campus Institutes In the United States, or CONFUCIUS, Act seeks to limit Chinese influence on campus. It says that U.S. colleges must have full control over the Chinese-government-funded language and cultural centers, including over curriculum, employment, research grants, and activities hosted by the institutes. The measure also stipulates that foreign laws cannot be applied on American campuses. Colleges that fail to comply could lose direct federal funding. (It would not apply to federal monies that go to students, such as Pell Grants.)

This is not the first time lawmakers have used public dollars as leverage — in 2018, they attached a rider to a defense spending bill that prohibited colleges with Confucius Institutes from using federal funds for Chinese-language training. More than a dozen colleges have since closed their centers.

The Senate bill still must pass the House of Representatives.

Around the Globe

A Harvard professor who was arrested in January has been indicted for making false statements about his participation in a Chinese talent program.

The U.S. Department of Education has put out a final rule governing distribution of emergency coronavirus financial aid. It excludes international students and DACA recipients from receiving assistance but says the provision will not be enforced retroactively.

A Princeton graduate student says Iranian officials held him for three yearsbecause they hoped to use him in negotiations with the U.S.

An Australian student suspended over his anti-China activism is suing the University of Queensland and its leaders.

China is warning students against studying in Australia as tensions ratchet up between the two countries.

If visas were rescinded for Chinese-educated artificial intelligence researchers who study or work in America, the U.S. could lose nearly a third of its top AI researchers, a new study shows.

U.S. universities hold down the top spots on the latest QS global rankings, but Asian institutions have been gaining ground.

There has been a spate of visa revocations for Indian students on OPT. They seem to be associated with a handful of employers.

Students in Germany are calling for the ouster of the education minister, saying the government’s response to their financial problems is inadequate.

The European Commission wants to cut the budget for the Erasmus+exchange program by €5.4 billion.

The Brazilian Ministry of Education is taking over the appointment of university rectors during covid, under emergency provisions signed by President Jair Bolsonaro.

Students who were abroad during the covid outbreak would have liked better communication from their programs and more financial assistance, according a survey by Diversity Abroad.

And finally…

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s OK. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”

Two years after his death, RIP Anthony Bourdain.

’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.