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BREAKING: The Biden administration calls for a unified national strategy for international education. Plus, this summer’s student-visa numbers are on pace with pre-pandemic levels, a new analysis shows.

‘A Renewed Commitment’

The United States has never had a coordinated national approach to international education. Now the Biden administration says it will pursue one.

In a joint statement released Monday morning, the U.S. Departments of State and Education announced a “renewed U.S. commitment to international education.” Global academic ties, through the exchange of students and collaborative teaching and research, are crucial for American security, prosperity, and innovation, the statement said.

“As U.S. federal agencies involved in different aspects of international education, we commit to undertaking actions to support a renewed focus on international education.”

The coordinated policy will include international students studying in the U.S., American students going abroad, international research collaboration, and the internationalization of American classrooms and campuses.

International-education groups have been advocating for a national strategy for international education for years, arguing that the lack of a unified approach puts the U.S. at a disadvantage, particularly when it comes to recruiting global talent. Many of America’s competitors, such as Australia and Britain, already have a national global-education policy.

Esther D. Brimmer, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, called the joint statement a “welcome initiative that signals an exciting advancement in rebuilding and restoring U.S. engagement with the world.” 

Louis Caldera, co-founder of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, said he hoped that “the policies that follow this joint statement will help re-establish U.S. preeminence in international education, an extremely competitive and important sector of our economy that was severely undermined by the policies of the last administration.”

The statement outlines a number of policies and other approaches federal agencies can pursue in support of international education. It said the U.S. government will:

  • Encourage more international students and scholars to come to the United States and more Americans to study and do research abroad and work to diversify participation in international education;
  • Make a “strong focus” on international education part of the national recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic;
  • Promote expanded access to international education, including through the use of technology where in-person experiences are not feasible;
  • Put in place policies and procedures to facilitate both study and approved work experiences for international students, while protecting program integrity and national security;
  • Clearly communicate policy guidance for international students and implement “fair, efficient, and transparent” student-visa processes;
  • Leverage existing international education programs and resources to create new opportunities to broaden access; and 
  • Strengthen cooperation between the federal government, colleges, and the private sector to maintain the integrity of federally-funded intellectual property and research from undue foreign influence.

The statement, however, stops short of proposing specific programming or committing government spending. 

Brimmer called on the White House to set up a coordinating commission or council to synchronize and integrate international-education policy across multiple federal agencies. 

She noted that NAFSA has crafted a detailed set of policy proposals for international education and suggested a number of steps the Biden administration could take as part of a national strategy, among them increased funding for exchange programs, including virtual study abroad; concrete enrollment targets for foreign-student recruitment; and reforms to immigration and visa policy that would make it easier for international students to come, stay, and work in the United States.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona announced the plan in remarks to the EducationUSA Forum. Blinken, who studied in France as a teenager, called international education a “foreign policy imperative.”

“It’s strongly in our national interest for the U.S. to remain the top study destination for foreign students,” he said.

Tell me what you think about this announcement. You can email me with feedback, suggestions, and ideas.

Visa Issuances Surge

After deep downturns because of Covid-19, the number of student visas issued in recent months is nearly on pace with pre-pandemic levels.

In May and June, U.S. consulates worldwide approved almost 117,000 F-1 student visas — 93 percent of the number authorized in the same two months in 2019.

Dan Bauman and I analyzed recent student-visa issuance data from the U.S. Department of State for the Chronicle of Higher Education. We found that in the first four months of the year, just 26,000 student visas were granted, about half of the number authorized in the same months in 2019. 

But as consulates have reopened and travel restrictions have been lifted, F-1 visa issuance has picked up speed. Sixty percent of all student visas are typically approved in just three months, May, June, and July. While July figures won’t be available until sometime in August, the pace of visa issuance in these first two crucial months should give American colleges reason for optimism about international enrollments this fall.

You can read more of our exclusive analysis over at the Chronicle. (Nonsubscribers can get a limited number of free articles each month with registration.) But here are a few takeaways from the data:

Issuance rates aren’t even around the world. Take the two countries that send the most international students to America. The number of F-1 visas approved in China in May and June, nearly 57,000, are actually slightly ahead of 2019 rates. But in India, just 9,100 visas were granted in those months, 60 percent of the amount in the same period two years ago.

U.S. consulates in India, of course, were forced to cease most services for several weeks in May and June because of a severe new wave of Covid. They have since resumed visa appointments, with officials pledging an “intensive” summertime push specifically to get student visas approved. Students and college counselors there said they’ve been able to schedule visa interviews in recent weeks.

India’s not the only possible trouble spot. Students from Iran and Chinese graduate students in certain sensitive STEM fields report having difficulty getting visas or being denied outright. In Russia, a geopolitical spat ended visa services at U.S. consulates. Alisa Sannikova, an incoming freshman at Grinnell College, told me that initially the first visa appointment she could schedule was in Kazakhstan in October, well into the fall semester. She was eventually able to snag one in Warsaw and got her visa.

Being on pace is good — but should the numbers be even better? There is a backlog this year, as not only new international students but also those who deferred or who studied remotely over the past year seek visas. “There’s pent-up demand, as you might imagine,” said Lisa J. Montoya, vice provost for global initiatives at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The number of new international students fell 43 percent in fall 2020, more than any other demographic group. Given that, shouldn’t this summer’s visa issuances be besting 2019’s? Maybe. But I’d say there are reasons not to hit the panic button yet. First, many consulates are still coming up to capacity — China didn’t even begin visa appointments until the second week of May.

Second, our analysis of visa data shows that more international students were able to come to the U.S. for the spring semester than previously reported. Between November 2020 and January 2021, more than 45,000 student visas were authorized, about three-quarters of the number granted in the same months a year earlier.

What the data can’t tell us: Visa delays aren’t the only hurdle that international students face in coming to the U.S. this fall. Students will still have to deal with quarantine and the lack of vaccine availability in their home countries. The spread of the delta variant is a real wild card. And international airfares have skyrocketed, with limited flights from China and India.

Sufei Li told me that the 200 students in a Chinese dual-degree program she helps manage at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities have succeeded in getting visas, but she worries about finding affordable airfares. Some one-way ticket prices have risen as high as $10,000.

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Around the Globe

In a new letter, higher-ed groups ask the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security to clarify the national-interest exemption for international students and call on consulates to publish a standard FAQ about the travel policy. 

The U.S. government has dropped charges against five visiting Chinese researchers accused of hiding their military affiliations, another blow for the “China Initiative.” 

More than 400 university presidents, CEOs, and civic leaders have signed a letter calling on Congress to pass legislation providing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.

Homeland Security said it would streamline procedures for people on nonimmigrant visas seeking to change their status to become F-1 students.

Somali students dealing with severe economic hardship will be eligible for emergency work authorization.

NAFSA has asked the U.S. government to grant special student relief for students from Haiti, in the wake of economic and social unrest in that country.

At the University of California, which will be required to cap international and out-of-state enrollments beginning next year, the number of international freshmen admits for fall 2021 climbed slightly, by about 5 percent.

In an opinion piece, Cornell’s vice provost of international affairs called on Congress to authorize “resources and regulations” to support international collaboration instead of, she writes, “building more walls.”

Chinese universities aided state-security officers in a plot to hack into the computer systems of companies, universities, and government offices in the U.S. and elsewhere, according to a federal grand jury indictment.

India has delayed the implementation of a common university entrance exam because of the pandemic.

Top-ranked western universities are taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to opening branch campuses in India, a survey conducted by the Indian government shows.

Myanmar’s exiled government is establishing higher-ed alternatives.

Some 160 recipients of European Union research grants are calling on EU funding agencies to exclude some Israeli universities that they say are “complicit” in Palestinian human-rights violations from their programs.

A court in Belarus has sentenced 11 university students and an instructor to two years or more in jail for their part in anti-government protests.

For news updates between issues, follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

And finally…

Does your college — the one you attended or the one where you now work — assign a common reading to all incoming first-year students? Mine didn’t, although it does now — students last year read Tara Westover’s Educated, the most-common common reading on American campuses.

Audrey Williams June and Jacquelyn Elias put together a fascinating interactive, breaking down 1,064 assigned readings at more than 700 institutions over the past four years. What do these summertime assignments tell us? Personal narratives are especially popular — one in five assignments were biographies or memoirs. Most of the common readings are recently published, after 2010. Four in 10 are books about African Americans or race or race relations.

I’d love to hear your take on these first-year readings. And while a growing number of the assignments focus on the immigrant experience, American authors dominate — I’d be interested in the international-student perspective on this tendency. As always, drop me a line, and tell me what you think.

’Til next time —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.