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Could President-elect Joe Biden make a commitment to welcoming international students to the United States a central component of repositioning the country abroad as an open, confident global leader?

That’s the argument Samantha Power, a former UN ambassador and current Harvard professor, makes in the current issue of Foreign Policy.

Biden should make a “major speech” emphasizing his administration’s commitment to international students and intent to work with American colleges to once again increase their enrollment numbers. There are few clearer signals of America’s foreign-policy re-engagement, she argues, than highlighting its open doors to talented students from around the world.

“American universities have a special place in the global imagination, and lowering the visa hurdles for study in the United States while creating better, more accessible pathways for international students to work in the United States after graduation can pay both short- and long-term dividends in expanding U.S. influence,” Power writes.

“It is hard to think of a more cost-effective way for Biden to reach global populations concerned about the direction of the United States than by celebrating the fact that the country is again welcoming bright young minds from around the world.”

Power does not suggest embracing students merely as a form of international imagemaking. She lays out a number of concrete steps the new administration could take to reverse skidding enrollments, including issuing new guidance on how border officials should treat international students, ensuring that students won’t have to seek visa extensions in the middle of their studies, and ordering a review of student-visa processing to improve transparency and eliminate unnecessary hurdles. She also calls for the reconstituting of the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council, a group of university presidents and educational experts that previously advised DHS on its policies’ impact on foreign students, teaching, and academic research.

Some of Power’s suggestions to the new president — such as setting international-enrollment targets and seeking commitments from college leaders to recruit from parts of the world underrepresented on American campuses — could mark an unusual amount of presidential leadership in international education. It sounds almost like a national policy for international education, dare I say it?

Power asserts that initiatives to attract international students have, prior to President Trump, been without controversy, and there I differ. There always have been people who see international students as “taking” something from Americans or who erroneously believe that U.S. taxpayers subsidize foreign citizens’ education. In more than a decade covering this beat, I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a radio show without a caller complaining that an international student was taking the place of their son or daughter at the state university.

It’s indisputably true, though, that the Trump administration deepened those divides. Over the past four years, international-student policy has been politicized, and certain groups, such as Chinese students, have been caught up in broader geopolitical tensions. Which is why, if the president-elect were to deliver Power’s imagined speech, his audience can’t just be the rest of the world. It has to be aimed closer to home, too.

It’s not enough to communicate that the U.S. again welcomes international students. Biden will have to reaffirm to his fellow Americans that there is great value in having them here.

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A Homeland Security Pick

Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security is winning plaudits from higher education.

Alejandro Mayorkas immigrated from Cuba as a baby and was an architect of DACA, the Obama-era program that protects younger Americans brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The Trump administration had sought to end DACA and has refused to permit new claims. President-elect Biden said he would reinstate the program in his first 100 days.

Mayorkas, a Homeland Security official under President Obama, has said DACA protections need to be made permanent and that the program should be expanded to include people of all ages.

International Education’s Priorities

Meanwhile, as the presidential transition moves forward officially, a number of higher-education groups have begun to release their policy wish lists for international education.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators made recommendations for “rebuilding and restoring international education leadership,” among them:

  • Establish a coordinated international-recruitment strategy;
  • Preserve post-study work experiences like Optional Practical Training;
  • Create a direct path to a green card for international graduates of American colleges;
  • Support study-abroad programs endangered by Covid-19; and
  • Prioritze global competency as a skill for American students.

The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities called on the new administration to:

  • Eliminate the requirement that student-visa applicants prove that they will not stay in the U.S. after graduation;
  • Immediately issue guidance permitting international students to remain in the U.S. during the pandemic even if their classes are entirely online; and
  • Partner with universities to tackle research-security issues and to encourage uniform standards across the federal government for global research engagement.

And the American Council on Education and 45 other higher-education associations appealed to the incoming president to undo a number of rules or executive actions taken by his predecessor including:

  • Reverse the Trump administration’s DACA repeal;
  • Withdraw proposed regulations that would impose a fixed time limit for student-visas; and
  • Kill efforts to make it harder and more expensive for individuals to receive H-1B skilled worker visas.

Unintended Consequences?

Finally, one last tidbit: Could a Biden-administration free-college program have the inadvertent effect of reining in international-student tuition? The Brookings Institution took a closer look at the College for All Act, the legislation co-authored by Sen. Bernie Sanders on which a Biden plan is expected to be based. Brookings found that price controls the plan would put on out-of-state sttudents at public colleges could also force universities to hold down tuition for international students.

Thanks to Heather Ward of the University of North Carolina at Chapel HIll, who spotted the nugget on international tuition. Do you have news I might have missed? Email me at, or send me a message on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Around the Globe

Iran released a British-Australian scholar who had been detained on spying charges as part of a prisoner swap.

More than 150 Nobel laureates sent a letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urging him to release another detainee, Ahmad Reza Jalali, a Swedish-Iranian physician and researcher who has been sentenced to death.

The Middle East Scholars Association is calling on Egypt to drop charges against a political-science professor at Alexandria University.

A military airstrike has reportedly hit a university in Ethiopia’s dissident Tigray region. It’s not clear if anyone was killed or wounded in the attack.

Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong and others could face prison time after pleading guilty to charges related to a 2019 pro-democracy protest.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association at Indiana University protested an invitation to Wong to speak there.

The UK government has pledged to continue funding student mobility if it can’t reach a deal to remain in the Erasmus+ program as part of Brexit negotiations.

The premier of New South Wales wants to use a portion of the Australian state’s quarantine capacity to bring in international students and skilled migrants.

The German government plans to spend nearly US$5 billion on research related to global warming and sustainability.

Thailand’s king has given several royal land deeds to universities amid student-led protests.

Global university rankings have weaknesses and limitations and need to be rethought, argues this column in Nature.

Two of Charles Darwin’s notebooks have been reported stolen from Cambridge University.

University leaders from around the world pledged to work with each other and with governments to address global challenges, especially those that disproportionately affecting youth.

And finally…

A professor at the University of Iowa brought some unexpected joy and light into a gloomy holiday period. Liz Pearce, a communications studies professor, worried that with warnings against Thanksgiving travel, many of her students would be celebrating the holiday alone. So she offered to cook and deliver Thanksgiving dinner to her students, all 130 of them.

“I just wanted everyone to know that there was room at my virtual table,” she told the Washington Post.

While only a handful of Pearce’s students took her up on the offer, many wrote back to say that the gesture made them felt cared for. Have you been doing any holiday outreach to send a reassuring message to your international students? Tell me about it!

’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.