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New legislation would allow U.S. colleges to continue incentive-based student recruiting overseas

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New bills could reverse an anti-agent provision, Taiwan embarks on educational diplomacy to the U.S., and a look at how neo-nationalism affects universities.


A Potential Fix

A pair of bills have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would allow American colleges to continue incentive-based student recruitment overseas.

The pieces of legislation are largely technical corrections to a recently passed veterans-education measure. That law, known as the THRIVE Act, did not include an exemption for international recruitment from a broader ban on the payment of commissions.

The provision put the use of agents in an unexpected gray area. That’s because the THRIVE Act is at odds with the Higher Education Act, which bars the practice domestically but includes a longstanding carve-out permitting it for the recruitment of “foreign students residing in foreign countries who are not eligible to receive federal assistance.”

As a result, colleges that pay commissions overseas could potentially jeopardize their GI Bill funds. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs last month issued “internal policy guidance” that appeared to confirm it was interpreting the new law to mean that Congress intended to prohibit incentive compensation for international students.

Both newly introduced bills would, among other changes, amend the veterans-education legislation to add the HEA language. One measure is sponsored by a trio of Democratic lawmakers, including the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The other is backed by the panel’s top Republican. 

While there are differences between the two bills, their international-student provisions correspond. The similarity between the amendments, as well as the committee’s history of bipartisan cooperation, has raised hopes that a fix can be enacted, a public-policy official at a higher-ed association told me.

As of Friday afternoon, legislation had not yet been introduced in the Senate.

Brian Whalen, executive director of the American International Recruitment Council, which trains and sets standards for agents and the colleges that use them, called the bills “welcome news.” 

“Institutions need clarity on how they conduct their international student recruitment with their educational-agency partners,” he said.

Still, there was not universal applause for the bills. In an unpublished essay shared with me prior to the new legislation’s introduction, Philip G. Altbach and Liz Reisberg of the Center for International Education at Boston College suggested that the THRIVE Act was an opportunity to reconsider the use of agents. Paying commissions raises ethical concerns, they argue. Instead, such funds could be used for direct services for international students and even for financial aid to low-income students from abroad.

Perhaps, they wrote, the renewed spotlight on the issue “could lead to needed reform in an admissions system that does not serve students well and, without better monitoring, continues to risk ethical lapses.”

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 international recruitment strategy.

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Taiwan’s Language Diplomacy

With the crackdown on Chinese-supported Confucius Institutes, Taiwan is stepping in to establish its own Chinese-language centers across the U.S.

The first Taiwan Center for Mandarin Learning was opened last month by Tung Chen-yuan, Taiwan’s minister for Overseas Community Affairs. Although Tung told the Taipei Times that Taiwan was not “challenging” the Confucius Institutes, he cast the new language programs as opportunities for “liberal-minded” learning. 

In addition to the community-based language schools, Taiwan has also inked deals with a half-dozen American colleges for Chinese-language instruction and student exchanges. 

These new educational ties represent a soft-power initiative by Taiwan at a time of strained relations between the U.S. and China. Confucius Institutes in particular have been under fire, both on campus and in Congress. Since April 2017, nearly 90 of the centers have closed or announced plans to shut down, many in response to a ban on defense spending going to colleges that host the institutes.

Lawmakers praised Taiwan’s educational outreach. “Although I object to Confucius Institutes, I also recognize the need for American students to study and learn Mandarin [and] that is why I fully encourage Taiwan sponsoring Mandarin programs at universities in the U.S. as an alternative to Confucius Institutes,” Rep. Andy Barr of Kentucky told Politico.

But some educators were skeptical:

Also: Harvard will move its summertime Chinese-language program from Beijing to Taipei, citing a “perceived lack of friendliness” from its Chinese host institution. Jennifer L. Liu, the program’s director, told the Crimson that it had difficulty accessing classroom and dormitory space it needed at Beijing Language and Culture University. But the study-abroad program also may have been caught up in Sino-American tensions — after hosting an annual 4th of July party for years, the program was told in 2019 it could no longer organize the event, Liu said.

Have feedback on this issue or ideas for future coverage? I’m all ears.

A Look at Neo-Nationalism & Universities

Student-visa restrictions in the U.S. A crackdown on academics in Turkey. Efforts to push out a liberal-arts university in Hungary.

A new brand of nationalism is spreading around the globe and affecting higher ed, argues a just-released book, Neo-Nationalism and Universities: Populists, Autocrats, and the Future of Higher Education. It examines trends that threaten the societal role of universities, including attacks on civil liberties, free speech, and science; the firing and jailing of professors; and restrictions on visas that can limit mobility of academic talent. 

I talked with John Aubrey Douglass, senior research fellow at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California at Berkeley, who conceived of and edited the book. (Full disclosure: I wrote the chapter on China.)

What has given rise to the modern strain of nationalism, and what are some ways that this new brand of populism affects colleges and universities?

Neo-nationalism is a radical form of right-wing populism, often characterized by anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric; economic protectionism; constraints on civil liberties; attacks on critics, including journalists and academics; the denial of science related to climate change, the environment, and even vaccines; and the emergence and empowerment of demagogues and autocrats.

In some parts of the globe, these ultra-conservative leanings gain the support of a core constituency that includes conservative religious groups. The Golden Age myth, of power and prestige lost that must be reclaimed, is also a common theme.

Today’s breed of nationalism has modern causes: the rapid pace of globalization leading to economic uncertainty for many; the pace of immigration and demographic changes among and within countries; and the ability of a new generation of populists and demagogues to use technology and social networks to constrain dissent and promote themselves and their movements, both at home and abroad.

To varying degrees, universities are feeling the brunt of this rise in neo-nationalist movements and governments. As demagogues seek to generate populist support and solidify their authority, we have entered an era in which universities are often attacked as hubs of dissent, symbols of global elitism, and generators of biased research. Academic freedom is being more overtly suppressed, faculty and administrators are sometimes fired and jailed, and university governance and management are altered to insure greater control by autocratic-leaning politicians.

Are there cases of neo-nationalism around the globe you’d point to as either indicative of broader trends or particularly disturbing?

There is a spectrum of neo-national movements, ranging from nationalist movements and parties in largely democratic societies to nationalist-leaning leaders, illiberal democracies, and autocratic regimes. The most egregious and worrisome shifts, often after a period of seemingly greater civil liberties, include China, Russia, and increasingly Hong Kong under the long shadow of Xi and the Chinese Communist Party. Turkey also provides an important example of a dramatic shift that began in earnest after the 2016 coup attempt. In each, we see the role of demagogic leaders: Xi, Putin, and Erdoğan. Hungary under Victor Orbán, a self-described illiberal democracy, also offers an example of increased suppression of civil liberties.

One sees a pattern of behavior, what I call the Autocrats Playbook: Neo-nationalist leaders pursue ways to alter the governance of universities with the objective of directly or indirectly choosing rectors or presidents and other key academic administrators; to influence or control faculty hiring and advancement; to punish dissent, sometimes with jail or permanently losing one’s job and imposing travel restrictions; and to more overtly deny funding for research in areas such as climate change or gender studies that are thought counter to conservative values.

In Turkey, for example, university rectors worked with the intelligence services to identify and fire over 8,500 faculty and 1,350 staff members as part of a purge for allegedly supporting the political rival of Erdoğan, exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen. Some universities have simply been closed. Those fired have had their passports revoked and find it difficult to find any form of employment.

We tend to think of nationalism as contradictory to the global nature of universities, but in fact, higher education has often played a role in nation building. How have universities helped shape national cultures and even modern nationalism itself?

It is important to understand that nationalism is not, unto itself, a negative term. Nationalism — essentially, a sense of belonging to a nation-state formed around a shared sense of values, history, cultural identity, and often language — can be relatively benign or enlightened. Beginning in earnest in the early 1800s, the modern university emerged as part and parcel of the modern nation-state and, in the case of the U.S., played a critical role in pursuing the ideal, if not the reality, of a pluralistic society. Creating a more educated citizenry has emerged in many fledgling and real democracies as a key component for seeking social and economic progress, but under political terms largely decided by the state.

Hence, there are significant different national stories, depending on the national and regional context and history. In the book I provide brief histories of the essential role of universities in nation-building in France, Germany, the U.S., and colonial and post-colonial nation-states, Russia and China — the good and the bad. I also ask the question of when universities are leaders or followers, as agents of progressive change in a society or reinforcing a political elite.

In short, even in the face of globalization, political and cultural geography still matters!

I’ll be joining John this Wednesday, October 20, at 11 p.m.. PT for a panel looking at neo-nationalism and universities in China, Hong Kong, Russia, and Singapore. Also speaking will be Igor Chirikov, senior researcher and director of the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium, and Bryan E. Penprase, vice president for sponsored research and external academic relations at Soka University of America. You can register here.

Neo-Nationalism and Universities is available in open-access format.

Around the Globe

The University of Tennessee has offered a professor fired after the U.S. government falsely accused him of concealing ties to China his job back. Anming Hu was acquitted last month after a federal judge said prosecutors failed to make their case.

A judge denied a motion by a Harvard professor accused of lying to federal authorities about his work in China to exclude a tape of his FBI interrogation in his coming trial. Charles Lieber had claimed that the agents had ignored his request for a lawyer.

The National Science Foundation’s inspector general told a U.S. House committee that nearly two-thirds of her office’s investigative portfolio is now focused on cases of suspected “foreign influence.” 

China’s consulate in Los Angeles warned Chinese students of security risks at U.S. borders after a number were “interrogated repeatedly” at the airport there.

FIRE has released a report on college policies on speech and free expression in study abroad. 

The American University of Afghanistan is moving its campus to Qatar.

IIE is asking colleges to complete a survey about how their institutions might be willing to support Afghan students and scholars.

International students in New Zealand may be refraining from reporting mental-health issues for fear of losing their visas because of a policy that says visa applicants must have an “acceptable standard of health.”

Mexico’s government science board has reportedly told researchers not to criticize it publicly, part of a shift toward politicalization of the body. 

The University of Cambridge has broken off talks with the United Arab Emirates for a multi-million-dollar partnership because of concerns over the UAE’s use of controversial hacking software.

Oxford installed a plaque next to a campus statue of Cecil Rhodes calling him a “committed British colonialist,” stopping short of calls to remove the memorial. 

India has slashed patent fees for universities in an effort to increase research, encourage academic-industry collaborations, and become more globally competitive.

Hackers from China have targeted universities in Hong Kong and Taiwan, Microsoft said in a report.

The artist who created a memorial to Tiananmen Square victims is hoping to get his sculpture back after the University of Hong Kong ordered its removal.

And finally…

There’s something oddly transfixing about River Runner, a site that allows you to “drop a raindrop” anywhere in the contiguous U.S. and follow its often-winding downstream path.

’Til next week —Karin

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