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A prominent Covid expert on why international education matters more than ever. Plus, alarming graduate enrollment numbers and a new OPT lawsuit.

‘You Don’t Know What You Had’

Not long ago, I was talking to a source. “Karin,” he told me, “I like getting your newsletter, but I don’t always like reading what’s in it.”

Undisputedly, the past year — the past several years, really — have been a bad-news time for international education. So I want to do something a little different this week, and tell you about a recent rallying cry I heard for the reinvigoration and renewed importance of international education. And the person making the case is not who you might expect.

At last week’s Association of International Education Administrators conference, I was asked to moderate the closing plenary, a conversation with Michael Osterholm, a leading epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. The man’s a public-health rock star, and I was a little intimidated that I might have to reel him in from talking about mRNA vaccines and spike proteins to focus in on international research and collaboration.

But Osterholm, who has traveled around the work for his work and as a U.S. State Department science envoy, told me that global research ties have been critical in fighting the pandemic. To be effective in moments of crisis, such partnerships have to be nurtured over time.

The role that colleges play — in cultivating international science, in welcoming students from overseas and sending others abroad, and through curriculum that emphasizes the 21st century challenge of working across borders — is critical, Osterholm said:

You can’t consider yourself an institution of higher learning unless you understand the importance of international education. To me, that’s like trying to play a baseball game without pitchers. It doesn’t work.

Like Covid-19, many of the most important challenges we confront, from climate change to maternal health, demand a global response. Helping people grapple with this interconnectedness and build mutual understanding is the goal of international education, and now may be a “renaissance” for such work. International educators must be some of its loudest advocates, Osterholm said:

“Help others understand why it’s so important. Why starting this up again is not only in the institution’s best interest but in the world’s best interest….

“Please don’t get disheartened by this pause. If anything, I’m hopeful there might be more understanding of why international education, international collaboration, is so important. It’s that old line, sometimes you don’t know until you lose something what you really had. And I think this past year we’ve learned a lot about what it might look like if international education wasn’t the way it once was.”

OK, now for the rest of the week’s news…

Grad Numbers Decline

The Council of Graduate Schools is out with its latest snapshot of international enrollments, and the picture isn’t pretty.

In fall 2020, first-time graduate enrollments tumbled early 40 percent, an unprecedented drop, a new CGS survey shows. The fall-off was driven by declines in students from China and India, which together account for more than 70 percent of all international graduate applicants offered admission in 2020 But the decreases were felt across institutional type and academic discipline.

International enrollments are estimated to be down across higher ed, but the impact can be greater at the graduate level, where one in five students is from overseas. In certain science and engineering programs, more than half of those who earn degrees are student-visa holders.

Here’s what else you should know about the CGS data:

The declines were bigger at the master’s-degree level than among Ph.D. students. First-time enrollments decreased by 26 percent at the doctoral level and 43 percent among master’s students. Hironao Okahana, vice president for research and knowledge development at CGS, told me that doctoral students are more likely to have already been in the United States for a previous academic program and thus did not face the same travel and visa restrictions as students coming from outside of the country. Another reason? The short duration of master’s programs means students could be stuck doing much of their degree online or in hybrid mode. This unattractive option could lead students to decline or defer admission.

India saw the worst fall-off. The new enrollments from India plummeted 66 percent, while Chinese numbers were down 37 percent. India’s decline is tied to the fact that eight in 10 graduate students from there are studying for master’s degrees. In the past, Indian students, who largely pay their own way, have also been sensitive to economic shifts. Twenty-one percent of Indian students accepted to master’s programs deferred admission.

Fall 2021 is uncertain. Colleges reported an uptick in deferral rates. Overall, 12 percent of admitted master’s and certificate students and 10 percent of those accepted to doctoral programs deferred admission — which could indicate pent-up demand. And prior to the pandemic, overseas applications increased 3 percent, suggestng continued interest in studying in America. Stll, how the U.S. does in combatting Covid over the coming months could matter. Just the other day, I was talking to a Chinese undergraduate who had planned to stay in the U.S. to earn an advanced degree. Now her parents were urging her to return to China. “They’re scared it’s not safe for me here,” she said.

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Lawsuit Challenges OPT Delays

A new lawsuit seeks to make the U.S. government speed up processing of applications for optional practical training, the post-graduation work program popular with international students.

It would also block the removal of students whose visas have expired because of lengthy wait times and asks that students not be otherwise penalized for government delays.

United States Citizen and Immigration Services’ hold-ups in approving work authorizations and issuing paperwork have meant students have had job and internship offers rescinded. Because of strict timelines about when students can be approved for OPT and the OPT STEM extension and on how long after graduation they can participate in such programs, some students have had their work eligibility reduced. Others have had the grace period expire, meaning that they could be forced to leave the U.S.

It’s not simply a matter of missing out on work experience, said Robert Cohen, an attorney who filed the case last week on behalf of 18 international students, Many students rely on OPT to pay rent and other bills and get health insurance through their employers.

“Students are really at the breaking point of stress and anxiety,” Cohen said.

Cohen told me that he was optimistic about working with the government to find a solution to the problem, although he said he wasn’t certain what shape the fix would take. On Thursday, USCIS released a notice acknowledging the delays and saying that applications would not be rejected on the basis of such hold-ups.

Around the Globe

Immigration legislation has finally been introduced in Congress with provisions to make it easier for international students who graduate with STEM PhDs to stay in the U.S. and putting dreamers on an expedited path to citizenship.

In a white paper, Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican presidential aspirant, proposed barring Chinese graduate students from studying in STEM fields or doing postgraduate research.

A bill introduced in the Florida legislature would block public colleges in the state from entering into agreements with China and other Communist regimes and would require them to end such partnerships by next January.

Participants in an elite master’s degree program that sends students to study in China are pressing the program’s benefactor to stop donating to lawmakers who sought to overturn the U.S. presidential election.

Here are the colleges that produced the most Fulbright recipients in 2020–21 — although few got to go abroad.

Amid Covid, Dartmouth College will cut itsstudy-abroad programs by more than a third next year.

British government plans to appoint a “free speech champion” for universities that officials say will protect against attempts to silence academics and speakers with unpopular opinions.

A new study suggests some Nigerian elites may be laundering money through tuition fees paid to UK universities and boarding schools.

Tel Aviv University’s Facebook page was hacked by pro-Palestinian groups after the university signed a student-exchange agreement with an institution in the occupied West Bank.

Indian authorities arrested a 22-year-old college student and climate-change activist.

The European Union says it can exclude China from EU research projects.

The Greek Parliament has approved an education-reform bill that would permit policing on university campuses.

In France, the government has announced an investigation into ideas imported from American higher education that “corrupt society.”

The Global Inclusion Conference, formerly the Diversity Abroad conference, is accepting proposals for its event, which will be held in late October. Read more.

Got global news to share? Send updates, feedback, and story ideas to me at Want to know what’s going on in international ed between editions? Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

And finally…

OK, this is more interstellar than international, but the video of the Perservance Rover landing on Mars is pretty cool.

NASA Science Live: We Landed on Mars

’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.