Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash
Sign up to get Latitude(s)

When Covid-19 began to spread, Australia closed its borders to noncitizens, including international students. Unlike in the United States, where travel restrictions began to be imposed after most colleges had resumed classes, the Australian shutdown occurred just as universities there began their academic year, in late February and early March.

As a result, many international students, new and continuing alike, were stuck outside the country. There they remain.

Universities had hoped students would be allowed in by early 2021. But last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison dashed those hopes. More than 30,000 Australians remain abroad, and strict re-entry rules and overtaxed quarantine facilities can’t accommodate them. International students, the prime minister said, will have to wait.

“Sadly, that will delay any ability to be bringing international students to Australia soon because we must use every available place to get Australians home,” he said. “This is a question of priorities and our priorities must be to look after Australian citizens and residents first.”

If the border restrictions remain in place into next year, Australia could lose half of its pre-pandemic international enrollments, according to the Mitchell Institute for Education and Health Policy, a think tank based at Victoria University. The cost to the country’s economy could be nearly $16 billion.

Why talk about Australia? Because Covid is truly global. Issues like political leadership, visa policy, and work rules for international students are country-specific, and so the challenges America faces are often ours alone. But the coronavirus knows no boundaries. All host countries have had to craft international-student policy in the wake of Covid, each with its own implications.

A recent survey by IDP Connect found growing frustration among current and prospective international students about continued border closures in Australia and neighboring New Zealand.

Other countries, like Canada, have exempted overseas students from entry restrictions, but there are complaints that some provinces have been slow to approve Covid-readiness plans for universities and English-language programs, delaying students’ return.

Of the major destination countries, the UK has perhaps pushed the hardest to enroll international students this fall, with some universities even chartering flights to make up for limited air travel. But efforts to return to normal has had trade-offs, particularly around health.

One American mother whose daughter studies in London said she had to undergo a lengthy quarantine, only to contract the coronavirus from classmates. Testing was inadequate, the mother said, and only when Britain went into lockdown was her daughter permitted to return home and take classes remotely. At this point, she is expected to be back on campus for in-person classes next semester.

“By requiring students to come to campus, the universities created huge petri dishes,” the mother said. “To add insult to injury, international students pay more than three times the price of domestic students for what amounts to repeated periods of forced quarantine, whether healthy or immune.”

New SEVIS Data

Now back to the U.S., where new visa data from the Department of Homeland Security provide an even clearer picture of fall international enrollments. According to the just-released SEVIS figures, the number of student-visa holders in the U.S. this September fell 21 percent from January, right before the pandemic.

There were about 905,000 international students this fall, compared to more than 1.1 million at the start of the year.

Before I dive into more analysis, let me pause for a minute to say why the data warrant attention. After all, you might rightly point out that last week’s newsletter also dealt with international enrollments. The DHS report pulls from contemporaneous visa records as tracked, mandatorily, in SEVIS, the student-visa database. It isn’t based on a survey, and it isn’t reliant on institutional self-reporting. (That said, SEVIS data are supposed to be reported each quarter, and before September, January was the last public update. There was a similar nine-month reporting gap in 2019.)

Here’s what else the SEVIS report shows:

  • The number of students from China, the largest sending country, declined 25 percent, while №2 India dropped 18 percent. The rest of the top 10 also experienced double-digit decreases.
  • Likewise, the states with the largest international-student populations, per Open Doors, all saw dips. The percentage declines ranged from 17 percent, in Texas, to 26 percent, in California.
  • Enrollments in English-language programs were down 43 percent over the pandemic period. Since their all-time high, in February 2015, English-language numbers have dropped almost 70 percent.

One final note, the SEVIS data includes visa information for students at the K-12 level, but younger students account for less than five percent of the total.

Please share this newsletter with interested friends and colleagues. They can sign up to subscribe.

New Risks to Academic Freedom

Global threats to academic freedom continue despite Covid, according to a new report from the Scholars at Risk network.

Students and scholars were the subject of more than 340 attacks in 58 countries in the past year, said the annual report, which covers September 2019 to August 2020. It details threats to higher education and academic freedom, including violent attacks on university campuses in Afghanistan, a four-year crackdown on scholars by Turkey’s government, and challenges to free speech and academic expression posed by Hong Kong’s new national-security law. But the compendium also includes incidents closer to home, such as when Charlie Kirk, the head of Turning Point USA, invited college students to monitor, record, and expose their professors’ political expression if they disagreed with it.

Scholars at Risk said the pandemic “revealed new vulnerabilities within higher education,” such as disruptions to online classes and meetings and the challenges of ensuring digital privacy to students taking courses from abroad, particularly from countries with strict censorship or security laws.

“Attacks on the university space impact all of us. Within the COVID-19 crisis we see persistent threats to scholars, students, and universities — even to truth itself,” said Robert Quinn, executive director of SAR. The report was released at the group’s virtual conference on academic freedom.

Around the Globe

Scholars are circulating a letter expressing outrage at recent attacks targeting students and professors in Afghanistan and calling for greater protection of higher-education institutions there.

A new coalition of international education, study abroad, and student exchange groups will advocate for greater global engagement.

Times Higher Ed released a global employability ranking, tracking the institutions employers say do best in preparing graduates for work. It looks an awful lot like its ranking of the world’s top universities.

Graduating students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong staged an anti-government protest where the ceremony was supposed to be held.

Students from mainland China and Hong Kong may be interested in studying elsewhere in Asia, opting to stay closer to home after the pandemic, a new survey suggests.

Could the British government use Covid as a pretense to kill off struggling universities?

Several offices promoting Malaysian education overseas will be shut for failure to increase international students, research, or revenue.

Yemeni universities are charging students tuition in dollars, and currency exchange rates could keep some from earning a degree.

Poland’s education minister plans to introduce legislation to protect university instructors who express conservative, Christian, or nationalist views.

The University of Minnesota is establishing a National Resource Center for Refugees, Immigrants, and Migrants during Covid.

A new center will evaluate and measure Chinese universities’ performance.

Spot news I missed? Send it my way, to For news updates between issues, follow me on Twitter.

And finally…

Congrats to my friend Jeff Selingo whose book on college admissions, Who Gets In and Why, was named to the New York Times’ list of 100 Notable Books of 2020. Jeff also writes a newsletter, Next, on the future of higher ed. Huzzah!

’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.