A campus-speech law could allow China to police U.S. classrooms

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A campus-speech bill could allow China to police U.S. classroom debates. Plus, higher-ed groups ask the U.S. government to waive travel restrictions for international students who can’t get vaccinated at home.


Campus Speech and China

Campus-speech legislation could extend China’s policing of speech into American classrooms.

Florida Gov. Rob DeSantis earlier this year signed a controversial “viewpoint diversity” bill, permitting students to make video or audio recordings of classroom lectures for educational purposes or for reporting violations of university policy.

The bill was supported by conservative groups, who said it would promote free expression by allowing students at Florida’s public colleges to document supposed political bias in the classroom. But it also could put students and faculty at risk of running afoul of Chinese national-security law, said Thomas A. Breslin, a professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University.

China’s National People’s Congress last year passed a national-security law for Hong Kong that makes speech deemed critical of the Hong Kong or Chinese governments unlawful — regardless of the citizenship or location of the offender. Recordings made under the auspices of the Florida law could also serve as documentation of statements perceived to be anti-Chinese, Breslin told me:

“It allows China to potentially reach into Florida classrooms.”

Similar concerns about technology extending Chinese influence into American universities were raised when many students were taking classes online during the Covid-19 pandemic, including some from China. The Association of Asian Studies warned then that students and faculty could be in legal jeopardy and that academic freedom was at risk.

At that time, the real concern was for students studying remotely from home. But Chinese authorities have found a way to track students’ speech abroad. A student at the University of Minnesota was detained and served time in prison when he returned home to Wuhan for tweets he posted critical of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Twitter, of course, is blocked by Chinese firewalls.

Some Chinese students at U.S. colleges are already wary of speaking up on controversial topics, worried that their fellow Chinese students could report their comments back home. Breslin fears the new law could further chill discussion about politically sensitive subjects.

Under the Florida measure, students would not have to get consent or inform their professors or classmates of their recording. Faculty groups have sued to block the law, which also requires annual campus free speech climate surveys. But right-wing student activist groups like Turning Point USA have backed campus speech legislation across the country.

“You don’t have to be paranoid to be concerned given China’s behavior,” Breslin, who studies Chinese foreign relations, said. “The Chinese government tries to control the narrative.”

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Calls for Travel Flexibility

Higher-education organizations are calling on the Biden administration to exercise “flexibility” for international students, scholars, and researchers from countries where U.S. or WHO-approved vaccines are not available, permitting them to be vaccinated on arrival.

Under a new travel and entry policy set to take effect in November, foreign travelers will be able to come to the U.S. if they can prove they are fully vaccinated.

But in a letter to Jeffrey Zients, the administration’s Covid response coordinator, and Rochelle Walensky, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 40 educational groups ask that the vaccine requirement be waived for international students and scholars who don’t have easy access to inoculations in their home countries. The groups note that many colleges have undertaken campus and community vaccination efforts and say that the students could receive theirs once they get to the U.S.

Without such flexibility, students and scholars from some countries might be stopped from coming to the U.S. to study or do research. 

Even among the ten countries with the largest numbers of international students in the U.S., there is enormous variation in inoculation rates, according to vaccine data tracked by the New York Times. Three-quarters of the population in top-sending China has been fully vaccinated, while less than a fifth of Vietnamese have been. Just 22 percent of people in India, second only to China in the share of foreign students on American campuses, have been fully vaccinated, although about half have gotten at least one dose.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans are fully vaccinated.

A ‘Substantial’ Drop in Grad Students

The number of international graduate students took a “substantial” drop during the pandemic, according to the Council of Graduate Schools.

Due to Covid, there were actually fewer first-time international grad students in the U.S. in fall 2020 than were enrolled a decade earlier.

Total international enrollments decreased nearly 10 percent between fall 2019 and fall 2020, while new enrollments from abroad plummeted by more than a third. Despite the foreign-student declines, overall enrollments in graduate programs actually increased slightly, thanks to a larger number of Americans pursuing graduate study.

Still, the new figures underscore just how much certain fields depend on international-student interest. First-time enrollments fell by 17 percent in mathematics and computer science and 16 percent in engineering, the result of huge decreases in new international students. Roughly four in 10 graduate students in those disciplines comes from outside the U.S.

Overall, about 16 percent of graduate students last fall were international.

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Around the Globe

A federal court won’t put a DACA court case on hold while the Biden administration puts in place a new regulation shoring up legal protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. 

The companies that run the SAT and ACT are hemorrhaging money.

Confucius Institutes at German universities canceled talks by biographers of Xi Jinping under pressure from Chinese authorities.

Chinese officials overseeing detention camps in Xinjiang previously studied on Harvard fellowships.

Some students detained in protests against Myanmar’s military coup say they were tortured in prison.

Interest in studying in Canada is soaring, with applications for study permits through August running 27 percent higher than the same period in 2019.

France is establishing educational partnerships in Africa as part of a soft-power drive.

The new generation of international students will prioritize return on investment over rankings when deciding where to study.

China will open some civil-service jobs to new college graduates because of high rates of youth unemployment

Five former Chinese University of Hong Kong students have each been sentenced to nearly five years in prison after they were convicted of rioting during 2019 pro-democracy protests

If you missed last week’s discussion on neo-nationalism and higher ed in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Russia, you can watch it here.

And finally…

Spot someone in Europe wearing a Franklin & Marshall sweatshirt, and they might not be a proud student or loyal alumnus of the Pennsylvania liberal-arts college. They might just be making a fashion statement.

(Props to Clay Hensley for digging this one up.)

’Til next week —Karin

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