Courtesy of Bank Phrom

In a busy week for international ed, updates on the latest China Initiative trial, the end of a Trump-era visa rule, a legislative fix to permit the use of agents, and much more!

House Passes Agent Fix

The U.S. House has passed legislation that, among other provisions, would make fixes to a veterans training bill that appeared to bar incentive-based compensation in international-student recruitment. 

The veterans bill, known as the THRIVE Act, did not include an exemption for overseas recruitment from a broader ban on the payment of commissions in student recruitment. The lack of an exemption seems to have been an inadvertent oversight by lawmakers, but it thrust the use of agents, which has become more common in recent years, into an unexpected gray area.

Under the THRIVE Act, which took effect over the summer, colleges that use agents run the risk of jeopardizing their GI Bill funds. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs 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.

Higher-education groups have pressed to amend the THRIVE Act, saying that action was needed to bring clarity to overseas recruitment.

Federal student-aid law bans the payment of commissions domestically but has long included a carve-out permitting the practice for the recruitment of “foreign students residing in foreign countries who are not eligible to receive federal assistance.” The legislative fix adds back in that language, bringing the THRIVE Act in line with the Higher Education Act.

The measure’s sponsor, Rep. David Trone, a Maryland Democrat, said it would “allow universities to continue recruiting foreign students so that student bodies can remain diverse.”

The technical-corrections bill easily passed the House and was sent to the Senate, where a similar measure was introduced last month. Higher-ed officials told me they were optimistic about swift approval by the Senate.

“We are hopeful that the Senate will take up and pass the bill quickly, possibly as soon as next week.” said Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Feedback please! Email me with comments, critiques, and ideas for coverage.

Trump H-1B Rule Dropped

The Biden administration appears to be dropping its defense of a Trump-era regulation that would have made it more difficult for recent international graduates to work in the United States.

Government lawyers agreed to enter into settlement negotiations in a lawsuit over an 11th-hour Trump administration rule that would have done away with the H-1B visa lottery and replaced it with a salary-based system for awarding skilled-worker visas.

A study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that the new rule would disadvantage international students seeking visas to work in the U.S. because they typically make less than more-seasoned applicants. The think tank, which favors more open immigration, analyzed recent filings for H-1B petitions by international students and found that just four in 10 would have been approved if the regulation had been in place. That’s because 90 percent of recent grads in the past four years of cases fell into the two lowest salary levels, making them far less likely to win approval than higher-paid workers under the new system. Read more about the research here.

International-student advocates feared that the additional hurdle to working in the U.S. could discourage some students from coming to study here in the first place.

A motion filed last week in a case challenging the rule, Humane Society of NY, et al. v. Alejandro Mayorkas, et al., said that both sides had entered into settlement negotiations and that there was a “good-faith reason to believe that the parties will reach an agreement in the near future that will fully resolve this matter.”

Jesse Bless, director of litigation at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told Forbes: “Our plaintiffs are thrilled with the government’s apparent, yet belated, decision to no longer defend the H-1B Lottery Rule.” 

State of Academic Freedom Globally

The pandemic didn’t stop assaults on academic freedom, according to the latest “Free to Think” report from Scholars at Risk. There were 332 attacks on scholars, students, researchers, and universities in 65 countries over the past year, according to the group’s annual look at the state of academic freedom worldwide.

The report catalogues a variety of attempts to stifle academic freedom, including imprisonment, physical attacks, job losses, and government efforts to restrict or curtail academic activities. Its scope is global and includes the assassination of academics in Afghanistan, the takeover of university campuses during Myanmar’s military coup, the prosecution of scholars and students under anti-terrorism laws in India, and the use of presidential orders to clamp down on higher-ed institutions in Brazil.

Some of the incidents that make the list are closer to home, such as legislative attacks on critical-race theory, the decision by the board of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to deny tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Nikole Hannah-Jones, and a new Florida law that will allow students to secretly record classroom discussions. SAR also highlights “serious concerns” about the U.S. Department of Justice’s China Initiative. Critics fear that the effort to counteract academic and economic espionage by China has unfairly targeted scientists of Chinese descent. 

The report concludes with a call for action to support academic freedom worldwide. Among its recommendations for higher education, SAR calls on universities and scholars to document and report incidents, to develop policies and practices that encourage a climate of academic freedom, and to aid threatened professors and students around the globe.

The full report is available here.

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A China Initiative Trial Begins

The next major China Initiative trial begins this Tuesday. 

Charles Lieber, a former chairman of Harvard University’s chemistry department, is accused of lying to federal authorities about his involvement in China’ Thousand Talents foreign talent-recruitment plan. He is charged with making false statements and with failing to report income he received from a Chinese university on tax returns.

Lieber’s trial is notable for a few reasons:

His case is the first against an academic researcher to go to trial since some notable stumbles by the government. The recent prosecution of Anming Hu ended in a mistrial, and a federal judge later acquitted the University of Tennessee professor, saying the government had no case. Federal officials have been under increasing pressure to rein in the China Initiative — or to abandon it altogether.

It appears that the prosecution will zero in on Lieber’s alleged failure to properly report his income from the Wuhan University of Technology. I read through prosecutors’ voir dire questions for potential jurors and found that seven of the 19 were on tax aspects of the case. Just one had to do with China. This underscores that while the purpose of the China Initiative is supposed to be to root out Chinese espionage, many of the actual charges have focused on failures to disclose foreign funding, making false statements, and tax fraud, not on the theft of trade secrets.

Lieber is the rare non-Chinese academic to be charged under the China Initiative. A recent MIT Technology Review analysis of cases found that nearly 90 percent of defendants are of Chinese heritage. Four in 10 Chinese and Chinese American scientists in a University of Arizona survey on the impact of the China Initiative said they felt racially profiled by the U.S. government.

In related news:

  • The former U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, who brought some of the China Initiative’s most high-profile cases, now says that the Justice Department effort has “lost its focus.” Andrew Lelling, who is considering a run for governor in Massachusetts, said the DOJ should “revamp, and shut down, parts of the program, to avoid needlessly chilling scientific and business collaborations with Chinese partners.”
  • Yale faculty are the latest group of professors to sign a letter protesting the China Initiative.
  • The outgoing head of the National Institutes of Health reflected on the government’s approach to addressing foreign influence in research. In “troubling situations,” Francis Collins told Nature, “only when it becomes clear that there is an intentional distortion of the facts and intentional effort to physically hide information should we then be taking hard actions.”

Around the Globe

In its latest outlook for U.S. higher ed, Fitch Ratings says while international enrollments have begun to stabilize, the international-recruitment landscape remains “fragile” and pandemic-related disruptions are possible.

Texas A&M University has proposed a sweeping reorganization of the liberal-arts and sciences faculty at its campus in Qatar.

The University of Akron is the latest U.S. college to say it will shut down its Confucius Institute, another closure related to legislation that restricts U.S. Defense Department grants to institutions with the Chinese-funded language and culture centers.

The Biden administration is urging an appeals court to restore DACA after a Texas judge barred new applicants from the program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation.

Despite facing disciplinary action and legal troubles, a number of agents are continuing to recruit international students, a PIE News investigation found.

Countries outside the major English-speaking destinations for international students have increased degree programs taught in English by more than 75 percent since 2017, according to research from the British Council and Studyportals.

Ontario’s auditor general is warning that universities in the Canadian province are overly reliant on international-student tuition fees.

South Korea could lose half of its universities in the next 25 years, a new report predicts.

The rector of Afghanistan’s Gharjistan University has requested asylum in Spain after receiving death threats.

A court sentenced 20 students at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology to death and five more to life imprisonment for the killing of a fellow student who had criticized the government on social media.

One student was killed and several were wounded in clashes near Palestinian university campuses.

Israel has formally joined the European Union’s flagship research program.

A private firm will run the UK’s signature Turing study-abroad program rather than the British Council, the Guardian reports.

New findings show that students engaged in international remote internships experience gain in technology utilization, confidence, and teamwork.

Hungry for even more international-education news? Follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn for the latest.

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And finally…

The new year is around the corner. I want to hear your predictions for international education in 2022 — what do you think will be the biggest trend, the greatest challenge, or most promising area of opportunity for the field? 

Send me your thoughts on what’s next, and I could include them in a special new year’s edition of latitude(s)

’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.