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Climate change moves from the periphery to mainstream in international education. Plus, a snapshot of virtual exchanges and an FBI warning about visa fraud.

A Focus on Climate

Not long ago, Ailsa Lamont and a handful of colleagues who started CANIE, the Climate Action Network for International Education, were on the outside looking in, trying to focus greater attention on the climate crisis.

A week ago, they held a series of virtual events around COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, bringing together global-education leaders from around the world to talk about how the field can respond to pressing needs around sustainability and climate change. Lamont told me she was heartened by the progress but acknowledged it wasn’t always easy: 

“In international education, we’ve seen ourselves as the good guys, but hang on, there’s a cost to what we do.”

I sat in on one of the leadership forums, and afterward, I caught up with Lamont to talk about strategies for moving the ball and the challenges to making change:

International educators appreciate the opportunity to exchange ideas and approaches. Peer examples help them advocate for change within their own institutions. “It gives them permission to go that much faster,” Lamont said. 

It also can be helpful when professional organizations put out frameworks for action. The Forum on Education Abroad released a set of guidelines for how study-abroad programs can advance UN Sustainable Development Goals (more below). CANIE has drafted a set of principles for environmentally sustainable international education, and participants felt they could be even stronger and more ambitious.

Lamont said a priority for CANIE will be to put together training sessions for those who want to implement more climate-conscious practices.

International offices often don’t know what their current climate impact is. When CANIE surveyed participants during one of the sessions, 75 percent said they didn’t know the emissions associated with their area of work. In a second session, six in 10 had no idea. 

Being able to measure what you do helps international programs make more environmentally sustainable choices, Lamont said. She pointed to an American study-abroad provider that switched its housing in Ireland to an accommodation that used 100-percent renewable energy, saving the equivalent of six trans-Atlantic flights. 

The pandemic helped accelerate change… With international travel grounded, colleges turned to online international-student recruitment and virtual exchanges. Such approaches won’t replace travel, but in the future, international offices may be quicker to ask what needs to be face to face and what can be done online. It’s not about stopping mobility but doing it in a smarter, more sustainable way, Lamont said.

…but change still isn’t happening fast enough. The issue of climate change has moved from the periphery to mainstream discussion within international education, but at the same time, the crisis is worsening, Lamont said. “We’re not at the point where the sector realizes it’s an emergency.”

She told the story of an international-education staffer who joined a campuswide sustainability committee without invitation, believing it was important for the her office to be at the table for such work. “We cannot wait to ask for permission,” Lamont said.

In action: The Forum on Education Abroad released its SDG guidelines a few months ago, and they’ve quickly become one of the group’s most popular resources, said Melissa Torres, the Forum’s executive director.

To have a long-term impact, colleges and providers need to think not just about their environmental footprint but how sustainability can feed into their educational mission — that is, how can sustainability be part of the learning goals of their overseas programs. Torres said it could take the form of connecting students with community groups and sustainability initiatives while abroad as well as part of re-entry programming.

FBI Warns of Visa Fraud

The FBI is warning colleges that suspicious applications from Pakistan could be a sign of possible visa fraud.

An alert from the FBI’s Office of Private Sector and its Richmond Field Office noted unusual patterns among a group of applicants from Pakistan to colleges in California, Texas, and Virginia. Although the applications initially appeared legitimate, admissions officials noted that many parent names and home addresses were nearly identical, that recommendation letters were not on school letterhead and contained similar formatting, and the financial statements came from just three banks and had similar and atypical misspellings. Admissions essays also appeared to closely match and covered unconventional topics.

In some cases, applicants submitted fraudulent scores on English-language tests. At the Virginia college, applications from Pakistan over a six-month period represented a ten-fold increase over what the institution usually received in a year.

An additional commonality was applicants’ “aggressive communications” with college admissions’ offices, demanding frequent status updates on their I-20 forms, the documents that enable them to apply for student visas. “While attempting to validate the applicants’ credentials,” the FBI wrote, “admissions officials identified approximately eight instances where the applicants indicated they would be traveling for ‘immigration or citizenship to Canada,’ raising concerns the applicants were ‘visa shopping.’”

The alert also noted that the colleges reporting issues all use the Common App. In a statement, Chris Wright, the group’s vice president for member solutions, said, “The Common App takes any issues related to plagiarism or fraud extremely seriously, and we have protocols in place to investigate these issues when they are raised either by our members or by our internal team.”

The FBI alert, known as an Academia Engagement Report, goes to higher-education stakeholders, and a copy was provided to latitude(s). 

The FBI called the incidents “indicative of potential visa fraud” and asked colleges to report to U.S. government officials if they encountered any of the practices detailed in the alert. Such indicators are not necessarily evidence of criminal activity, but they “may warrant further verification or law enforcement investigation,” the alert concluded.

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More Divergence in Enrollments

With three-quarters of colleges reporting their data to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the outlook for international undergraduate enrollments this fall has been revised upward. The number of international undergrads at U.S. colleges is still in decline, down 3.1 percent, but the decreases aren’t as steep as they were in preliminary reporting a month ago. 

But the new data drop reveals a real discrepancy in how different types of colleges are faring:

  • At private four-year colleges, all signs are positive, with foreign undergraduate enrollment increasing by 7 percent this fall. 
  • That’s not the story at public four-years, where international enrollments are down 7.9 percent. Since 2019, international undergrads at these colleges have declined by almost 22 percent.
  • The declines are even steeper this fall at public two-year colleges, of 9.2 percent. Since fall 2019, these institutions have lost 26.7 percent of their international students. 

A real throughline from the pandemic, for international education and across all of higher ed, seems to be a deepening of inequities.

A Snapshot of Virtual Exchanges

The pandemic spurred interest in virtual exchanges, according to a new survey from the Stevens Initiative. Seven in 10 respondents said they increased programming because of Covid-19. 

Although the lifting of travel restrictions and increased availability of vaccines could make international study possible for more students, virtual-exchange providers said they planned to continue such programs — 39 percent of those surveyed said they would keep their current level of programming, while nearly half said they expect to expand virtual exchanges.

While survey respondents included nearly 3,100 programs serving 225,000 students, Christine Shiau, director of the Stevens Initiative, which promotes access to virtual exchange, said the group hopes to expand and diversify the study in future years. Other challenges include finding ways to measure program quality and impact.

Meanwhile, here are a few other takeaways from the survey:

Around the Globe

International students at the University of Chicago held a rally to demand additional safety measures from the university after a recent graduate from China was shot and killed near campus.

The U.S. House passed the Build Back Better Act. Here’s what the social-spending bill, which still needs Senate approval, means for international and undocumented students.

Senate leaders have dropped plans to attach an anti-China competition bill to defense legislation. Instead, the measure, which contains a number of provisions affecting universities’ international research ties, will be negotiated separately by the House and Senate.

Lee Satterfield has been confirmed as the next assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs.

President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a virtual summit, but it does not appear that the issue of visa restrictions on some Chinese graduate students was taken up.

Two Chinese students who went to prison for photographing a U.S. naval facility were deported as part of a swap related to the summit.

Australia’s government has watered down plans to force all research-active academics to declare their overseas affiliations, instead allowing universities to choose which professors will have to file.

International applicants to graduate business programs increased by 4.1 percent in 2021 even as domestic applications declined, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

Yale calls a future international collaboration on the scale of Yale-NUS unlikely.

Cornell faculty are pushing for a resolution to give them more input into the university’s international partnerships and agreements.

The London School of Economics is investigating whether students threatened the Israeli ambassador when she was speaking at the university.

A Sudanese university vice chancellor has rejected coup leaders’ offer to make him prime minister.

Middle-aged Hong Kongers are applying for Canadian study permits in hopes of following an educational path to permanent residence.

Differing regional opening dates and local quarantine requirements have created confusion for international students in Australia.

U.S. and Swiss government officials signed an agreement to expand job opportunities at Swiss companies in the U.S. Switzerland is a leader in apprenticeships.

Publications with collaborators from four or more countries are more highly cited, according to a new issue brief on research impact and international collaboration. 

Carnegie Corporation has named Oxford’s vice chancellor as its new leader.

Colleges can nominate students affected by the crises in Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Afghanistan for the IIE Emergency Student Fund.

Applications are now open for IIE’s American Passport Project, which makes grants to colleges to help Pell-eligible students pay for U.S. passports.

For news updates, follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

And finally…

This newsletter hitting your inbox might make you think, It’s Monday, again?! A Berkeley professor on why the week is a “recalcitrant calendar unit” and why it’s stuck around.

’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.