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A bipartisan bill could increase government oversight of colleges’ foreign gifts and contracts. Plus, calls to reinstate educational exchanges or risk “driving Chinese students into the arms of other countries.”

New Oversight of International Deals

Colleges are anxiously watching as the U.S. Senate prepares to act this week on legislation meant to counter China’s global influence that could impose sweeping new government oversight on foreign gifts and contracts.

The bipartisan “Strategic Competition Act of 2021,” scheduled to be taken up by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, has things for higher ed to like, including new investment in research and technology to counter Chinese competition.

But a proposal in the bill that could effectively subject grants, contracts, or gifts above $1 million from foreign sources to U.S. government approval has alarmed university lobbyists and research officials I’ve spoken with. 

In 2019, there were about 400 gifts or contracts from foreign governments, companies, or individuals to universities totaling $1 million or more, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Specifically, the measure would subject higher-ed institutions to oversight by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a little-known multi-agency group that reviews global business deals for national-security concerns. If CFIUS thinks the transaction is a risk to the U.S., it can impose new requirements, suspend the deal, or even kill it — as it did three years ago when a Singapore company attempted to take over the chipmaker Qualcomm.

The bill would make the U.S. education secretary part of CFIUS and make part pf the group’s scope of work to determine “whether there are foreign malign influence or espionage activities directed or directly assisted by foreign governments against institutions of higher education.” Oversight would kick in if the gift or contract relates to research, development, or production of critical technologies and provides the foreign partner with potential access to unpublished information, or if it is a restricted or conditional gift or contract that “establishes control.”

Colleges fear that the provision could give the federal government veto power over some overseas partnerships. Although the language is in a bill focused on the Chinese government, CFIUS’ jurisdiction is not country-specific. 

If enacted, the bill would first create a pilot program for higher-ed institutions, which would have to file foreign-funding disclosures with CFIUS in addition to the Education Department, as currently required. The measure’s authors — the top Democrat and Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee — pledged to try to minimize the potential new reporting burden on colleges and to respect their academic freedom.

The bill is a work in progress, though, and the provision could be changed as it moves forward.

Still, higher-ed officials questioned the need for the legislative change, saying that there was little evidence that universities’ international work raises national-security concerns. Instead, the measure could slow international scientific research and collaboration, they fear.

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A Push to Reinstate Exchanges

Former diplomats and scholars are calling on the Biden administration to reinstate critical education exchanges with China, including the Peace Corps and the Fulbright Program.

“Don’t drive Chinese students into the higher education arms of other countries,” said J. Stapleton Roy, a former top envoy to China. 

Roy and other speakers at a Brookings Institution symposium on Sino-American exchanges argued that such programs help students from both countries gain a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of one another. The Trump administration canceled the Fulbright Program to Hong Kong and mainland China last summer amid rising tensions.

Cheng Li, director of Brookings’ John L. Thornton China Center, noted that when the U.S. and China resumed diplomatic and economic relations 40 years ago, one of the first priorities was educational cooperation. 

“Today, however, the pervasive view in Washington about educational exchanges with China is no longer one of hope for positive change through engagement but rather one of fear that these engagements may undermine American supremacy and American security,” he said, warning of “the dark prospect of disastrous confrontation between two superpowers.”

At the same event, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, acknowledged the “tension” involved in American universities’ engagement with and in China. 

“There is obviously a serious denial of academic freedom and human rights in China,” Bollinger said. “Does that mean we should have no engagement with any part of China because China is engaging in violations of human rights? Some people would take that position. I do not.”

He compared higher education’s presence in China to that of news organizations like the New York Times, which have bureaus around the world in order to do their reporting. Colleges likewise strike international relationships in order to further education and research. While pledging not to compromise Columbia’s academic freedom, Bollinger said, “I balance more toward engagement than withdrawal or retreat.”

Pay More to Avoid Research Conflicts

A top congressional Republican has an idea about how to avoid potentially problematic research collaborations with international rivals like China — pay scientists better.

Rep. Frank Lucas, an Oklahoman who is the lead Republican on the House Science Committee, told Times Higher Ed’s Paul Basken that low salaries might be a factor in a spate of recent cases in which researchers are accused of hiding their China ties.

“If they were properly rewarded, would there be an incentive to engage in this kind of activity?” Lucas said. “I just think that’s something we have to look at.”

Lucas is the author of legislation to double basic research spending by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and other agencies. While that bill would not directly increase researchers’ salaries, he said they should benefit more from their work.

Around the Globe

President Biden’s pick to head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is a former top lawyer for the agency and familiar with issues facing international and undocumented students.

Students will now be able to file applications for Optional Practical Training online.

A top U.S. consular official in India pledged to prioritize student visas and said he expected to be able to meet demand for student appointments.

House legislation seeks to prevent future travel bans like those imposed by former President Trump.

A wildfire forced the evacuation of students from the University of Cape Town and burned the campus library.

Brexit led to a 40 percent decline in undergraduate applications from the European Union to UK universities.

Canada will offer permanent residency to some 40,000 international graduates of the country’s universities who “actively contribute” to the economy.

A Canadian university is cutting dozens of programs and laying off about 100 professors.

City College of San Francisco could lay off half of its English as a Second Language instructors.

Moroccan academics are protesting a draft law that would give the Ministry of Higher Education greater control over lecturers’ wages and benefits and allow the government to intervene in teaching and research.

University presidents in Israel are criticizing the government’s decision to withhold the country’s most prestigious prize from a professor because of claims he supports the Palestinian-led boycott of Israel.

Faculty at Japan’s University of Tsukuba are campaigning against re-appointment of the institution’s president, saying he misreported international enrollment data to move up global rankings.

Officials at the University of Hong Kong have called for the creation of a committee to protect academic freedom in “conformity” with the new national security law, raising new fears about the law’s impact on academe.

Check out this paper from AIEA and UNESCO on the future of global learning and intercultural competency.

Have news tips, ideas for coverage, or other feedback? Email me at or send me a message on Twitter or LinkedIn.

A Conversation on Anti-Asian Racism

From “kung flu” to the “China virus,” the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a rise in anti-Asian hate, culminating in the mass shooting at Atlanta-area spas. How is this surge in xenophobia affecting international students, 70 percent of whom are from Asia? Join a conversation on anti-Asian hate and international students, co-sponsored by latitude(s) and the University of Kentucky Office of China Initiatives. Hear from campus experts about how their colleges work to combat racism and to support their international students in this difficult time. The panel discussion will also feature international students reflecting on their experience during this wave of anti-Asian rhetoric.

Please join us for this free webinar on Wednesday, April 28, at 12:30 p.m. ET/9:30 a.m. PT. You can register here.

And finally…

This Guardian piece sets out to try to solve the mystery of a man who fell from a plane on approach to landing at London’s Heathrow Airport. It turns into a thoughtful meditation on what drives migrants and refugees.

’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.