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A veterans-education bill could restrict the use of agents. Also in this issue, calls to aid Afghan students and scholars and an uptick in economic- and academic-espionage prosecutions of Chinese Americans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs could be preparing to carry out a provision of a new law that would ban the payment of commissions to agents in international-student recruitment.

In a letter to congressional leaders, a coalition of higher-education groups write that on September 15 the VA issued “internal policy guidance that appears to confirm” that the federal agency is interpreting a provision of the recently passed THRIVE Act to mean that Congress intended to prohibit incentive compensation for foreign students.

The policy guidance “has brought a new urgency to the need for technical corrections,” the 17 associations write, asking lawmakers to enact such a fix. Without it, colleges that use agents in international recruiting could risk jeopardizing GI Bill funding.

The legislation took effect August 1.

The Higher Education Act has long blocked the use of incentive compensation in domestic recruitment, but it explicitly permits the practice overseas, since international students don’t qualify for federal financial aid. But the veterans-education bill lacks such a carve-out, putting it in conflict with the HEA.

Most observers had assumed that the little-noticed provision was an oversight or an error, but the VA’s guidance suggests it could interpret the deviation from longstanding practice as congressional intent. Brian Whalen of the American International Recruitment Council, which trains and sets standards for agents and the colleges that use them, called that “shocking.” 

“The possibility that Congress intended to prohibit the use of incentive compensation to recruit international students is deeply concerning,” he said.

The coalition letter said that higher-ed groups raised concerns about the provision earlier this summer, prior to a House hearing in July on implementation of the law.

AIRC is asking its member colleges to contact the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees to ask for a technical correction to the THRIVE Act. NAFSA, which signed the association letter, has also sent its own letter to Congress.

About half of all colleges surveyed earlier this year by AIRC and the National Association for College Admission Counseling said they used agents as part of their overseas recruitment strategy. While the practice has grown more accepted — the U.S. State Department dropped its opposition to agents a few years ago — it remains less widespread among American colleges than in competitor countries like Australia and Britain.

The language on agents is not the only provision in the THRIVE Act with international impact. In the letter, the associations also ask Congress to change another provision, which would require colleges to provide students who are veterans with estimates of cost and financial aid for the duration of their studies. While the consumer-information provision is well-intentioned, the groups said, it could force some foreign universities to stop participating in VA programs. Requirements for institutions to open their student records to inspection by VA staff violates national privacy laws in some countries.

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Calls for Aid to Afghan Students, Scholars

Higher-education groups are calling on Congress to pass legislation and provide support for displaced students and scholars from Afghanistan.

In a letter to Congress, they lay out a number of steps lawmakers can take to aid students and researchers who seek to study or work in the U.S. as well as how to assist those already here. Among them:

  • Remove the requirement for non-immigrant intent for student-visa applicants from Afghanistan. Already, the groups write, there are reports that some students have been denied visas because they cannot prove they will return to Afghanistan.
  • Waive rules prohibiting off-campus work for Afghan students who may have had the source of their educational funding dry up overnight because of the Taliban takeover.
  • Require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to designate Afghanistan for Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Enforced Departure, protecting Afghan nationals from deportation.
  • Provide more funds to process Afghan visas and green cards.
  • Mandate the Departments of State and Homeland Security to “consider all possible avenues of relief” to allow Afghan nationals to stay in the U.S. as professors, researchers, and college staff.

What can individual colleges, academics, and students do? Here are some resources.

ICYMI, I looked at how a group of female students escaped Afghanistan.

Study Looks at Race in Prosecutions

There has been a marked shift in economic-espionage prosecutions over the past dozen years, with people of Chinese descent now accounting for more than half of those charged with crimes, including thefts of intellectual property and scientific secrets, according to a new study.

Since the start of the Trump administration, 52 percent of such defendants were of Chinese descent, said Andrew Chongseh Kim, an attorney and visiting scholar at South Texas College of Law, who authored the report for the Committee of 100. Previously, only about 15 percent of defendants had Chinese names.

Although such prosecutions have been in the spotlight thanks to the Trump administration’s China Initiative, which has targeted economic and academic espionage linked to China, the shift actually began earlier, Kim notes, under the Obama administration.

Kim, who studied cases between 1996 and 2020, also found that the U.S. Department of Justice was more likely to issue press releases when bringing charges against people of Asian descent.

The China Initiative has focused in particular on higher education, but Kim suggested that might be misplaced — just three percent of all trade-secret thefts over the 25-year period occurred in academe. That makes sense, he said, since it’s the job of professors and researchers to publish and freely share their findings.

“The government has been focusing on finding potential spies in academia,” he said, “but this study suggests the government is looking for spies in the places they are least likely to find them.”

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Around the Globe

The Biden administration will lift travel restrictions for vaccinated foreign travelers to the U.S. While international students are largely exempt from such restrictions, it could help ease their ability to come here because of confusion around national interest exemptions.

A new GAO report finds the severe slowdown in the processing of work authorizations, changes of visa status, and other immigration-related paperwork continues at USCIS.

The termination of two scientists at Baylor University has raised concerns among colleagues that they may have been targeted because of the China Initiative.

Australia’s plan to bring back international students could exclude Chinese students because Australia does not recognize China’s Covid-19 vaccine.

Six people were killed and 28 were hurt when a student opened fire at a Russian university.

The Taliban has replaced the chancellor of Kabul University.

A Chinese feminist activist and journalist went missing just as she was about to leave to study in the UK on a prestigious fellowship.

Indonesian counter-terrorism officials are worried about the possibility of Islamic radicalization on campus.

Turkish students have been camping in parks to protest the high costs of housing near universities.

A union representing lecturers, instructors, and other staff at British universities could vote to strike later this year.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has been named chancellor of Queens University Belfast.

And finally…

I’m a sucker for an inspirational baseball movie.

’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.