leaky pipe
Photo by Daan Mooij on Unsplash

How Visa Policy is Creating a Leaky Science Pipeline

It was a rude awakening for foreign scientista and scholars with a dream of working in America.

Mehmet Ali Icbay had just been shortlisted for a professorship in North Dakota. Icbay earned his Ph.D. at Ohio State and did postdoctoral work at Southern Illinois, and he wanted to return to America, where he has many friends and a professional network. His native Turkey has also become a more difficult place in recent years for academics. “There is opportunity in the U.S.,” he told me.

But instead of opportunity, there was only disappointment. In late June, President Trump released an executive order suspending the issuance of temporary work visas, such as H1-Bs, saying that the action was necessary to preserve jobs for Americans.

Icbay canceled his interview. The United States, at least for now, was out of reach.

The presidential order is a blow for individuals like Icbay. But many fear it could also be detrimental to American research and education.

[Bonus listen: I was on NPR’s excellent science podcast Short Wave to talk about the impact of the visa restrictions.]

Colleges use H1-Bs to hire foreign-born professors, researchers, and postdocs. For labs and tech firms, it’s an important recruitment tool, too — about a third of the scientists and engineers in the U.S. were born outside the country. Although critics worry that Americans are being displaced, most of these positions require specialized training and advanced education.

If the U.S. is off-limits, those talented workers could decide to go elsewhere. Some already have — since 2017, the number of successful applications from American residents to Canada’s main skilled-immigration program have increased by 75 percent, according to an analysis by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology. The growth was due entirely to non-citizens, many of them American-educated.

The sense that the nation’s doors are shut could also cause leaks earlier in the talent pipeline. Will international students still want to invest time in an American education or will they choose to study in a place where they can make connections and gain experience that could lead to a lasting career?

Siddharth Mathur, who grew up in an Indian family in the Philippines, first came to the U.S. as an undergraduate at Oberlin. In all, he’s spent nearly a dozen years here and was planning to take a postdoctoral position in math at the University of Arizona when the presidential order came down. Now, he will stay in Germany, where he has a research appointment, for another year.

Mathur said he always tried to be clear-eyed about the future, understanding there was no guarantee that he would find a tenure-track job at an American college. Still, he said, “I put roots down in the U.S.”

Universities can ill-afford to lose students like Mathur — more than half of the doctorates awarded in math, computer science, and engineering go to student-visa holders, and the majority of graduates stay in U.S., at least for their first job.

The executive order, which is being challenged in court, is temporary; it is set to expire at the end of the year, although it could be extended. But the message it sends to students and scholars around the world could be lasting.

As for Icbay, he has put the idea of returning to America on hold. “The order gives a subtle warning to the non-citizen/international scientists to stay away from the U.S. higher education institutions,” he wrote in an email to me. “Although you are a scientist and can contribute to the U.S. development, you cannot do that any more because you are from another country.”

Did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive latitude(s) weekly.

Chinese Student Visas Revoked

The U.S. government has revoked the visas of 1,000 Chinese students on national security grounds.

In a speech Wednesday, Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said that Washington was blocking visas “for certain Chinese graduate students and researchers with ties to China’s military fusion strategy to prevent them from stealing and otherwise appropriating sensitive research.” A State Department spokeswoman confirmed to Reuters that the visas were canceled in accordance with a May presidential order on students with ties to universities affiliated with the Chinese military.

What’s confusing, however, is that I have heard from multiple undergraduates who say their visas have been revoked, something other outlets have also reported. Yet, the May order specifically excludes undergraduates, saying that the U.S. can deny “entry into the United States as a nonimmigrant of any national of the PRC seeking to enter the United States pursuant to an F or J visa to study or conduct research in the United States, except for a student seeking to pursue undergraduate study.

Some of the students told me they transferred to the U.S. after beginning college in China, while others attended high schools affiliated with Chinese universities. So maybe that is how they are being tagged as having ties to suspect Chinese institutions? It’s also possible that the undergraduate visa cancellations are coincidental and unrelated. I’d be interested in hearing from colleges with students swept in the revocations. How are you advising them?

The visa cancellations are just the latest instance of bad blood between the U.S. and Chinese governments seeping into higher education. For the Chronicle of Higher Education, I took a look at how the administration’s tough-on-China approach could have a chilling effect on colleges’ global collaborations.

Meanwhile, as visa processing slowly resumes at U.S. embassies, some students have still struggled to get visas. Iranian students, who have to travel to another country for visa interviews because of the lack of an official U.S. presence, have begun a campaign to protest the delays.

Academic Freedom Volunteers Wanted

I wrote last week about the absence of measures of academic freedom in global university rankings. But there is a group that’s been working to create a new index that scores countries on their performance in ensuring academic freedom on their university campuses. The problem: Recruiting enough country-based experts to help assess local academic freedom. The U.S., in fact, wasn’t included in the initial version of the index, released earlier this year, because of insufficient data.

The organizers — the Global Public Policy Institute, the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, the Scholars at Risk Network, and the V‑Dem Institute — are looking for new volunteers to help with the new edition of the experts. In addition to weighing in on academic freedom indicators, country experts should also be able to answer questions about civil society and political mobilization. You can find more information here.

The Future of International Education

International education has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. As many international students pursue their studies online this semester, study abroad and foreign exchange programs have been cancelled. In a world with little travel, closed borders, and surging infections, many are asking: What is next for international higher ed?

Join me today, Monday, September 14, at 2 p.m. ET for a Chronicle of Higher Education virtual forum on the future of international education. I’ll be leading a stellar panel of experts to discuss integrating international perspectives into the curricula, creating global experiences that do not involve study abroad, innovating online programs for the current environment, and more. The session will be recorded, so even if you can’t tune it live, you can sign up and listen to it later. Register now!

Around the Gobe

The coronavirus pandemic exposed inequities and inadequacies in education systems around the world, according to the latest OECD Education at a Glance report.

Thousands of Hungarians have rallied in Budapest to protest the takeover of a top arts university by allies of the country’s president.

Academics in Hong Kong are reviewing their syllabuses out of fear of running afoul of the new Beijing-imposed security law.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pushing for “graded autonomy” for the country’s universities, rewarding those institutions that perform better.

A new funding plan for Chilean universities could leave them with large deficits, higher-education leaders warn.

A report suggests that transnational education in China is shifting toward fully in-country programs, rather than ones in which students spend a year or two abroad.

The National Association of Scholars criticized the College Board for its support of Confucius Classrooms and its ties to the Chinese government.

Canadian intelligence agencies are warning about the “corrosive tactics” used by China’s Thousand Talents Project.

Australian families have been opening their homes to international students who need places to stay because of the coronavirus.

Got some global-education news? Email me at latitudesnews@gmail.com or find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

And finally…

Have you been following the controversy over Disney’s live-action version of Mulan? The entertainment company has come under fire for, among other things, shooting in Xinjiang, likely within spitting distance of Uighur internment camps. Meanwhile, Chinese audiences have been underwhelmed. “General Tso’s Chicken,” one Chinese critic called it, an Americanized take on Chinese culture.

’Til next week — Karin

You May Also Like

The Shadow of Geopolitics

The State Department has designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center a “foreign mission” of China, the latest salvo in an ongoing confrontation.

What Turning Off WeChat Means

Limiting the social-media app could cut off Chinese students from family and friends at home. Plus, an international-exchange veteran on the decision to end the Fubright program in Hong Kong and mainland China.