The Biden administration announces policy changes to allow more international students to work longer in the U.S. after graduation. And a China Initiative case was dropped against a prominent professor — now he wants an investigation into why he was charged in the first place.
OPT Expansion Announced
The Biden administration will expand the Optional Practical Training program to allow more international students to stay in the United States longer to work after graduation, one of a number of policy changes aimed at attracting and retaining global talent.
The White House announced early Friday that it would add 22 new fields of study to the list of majors that qualify for STEM OPT, which permits students to work for three years post-graduation instead of just one. The change, which adds fields such as bioenergy, climate change, and data science, will take effect immediately, according to a notice published in the Federal Register.
The new policies will provide more “predictability and clarity” for international students, scholars, and researchers, officials said. “These actions will allow international STEM talent to continue to make meaningful contributions to America’s scholarly, research and development, and innovation communities,” the White House said in a statement.
In addition to the expansion of the popular work program for international graduates, the administration announced a number of other actions that could affect foreign students, among them:
- Students on J-1 exchange visas in STEM fields will also be permitted to work in the U.S. for up to three years. Current regulations cap OPT for students on J-1s, which are less common than F-1 student visas, at 18 months.
- The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs will start an early-career STEM research program to bring exchange visitors to the U.S. for research, training, and educational exchange.
- The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will clarify how people with “extraordinary abilities” in science and other fields, including those with STEM PhDs, can better qualify for O-1A work visas, sometimes known as “Einstein visas.”
- The department will streamline the process for applying for green cards, allowing applicants with advanced STEM degrees to get a national-interest waiver. Both of these changes could make it easier for international STEM graduates to remain in the U.S. talent pipeline.
Higher-ed groups welcomed the administration’s actions. “The administration is signaling a real recognition of the value of international talent to U.S. higher education, the economy, and our global competitiveness,” Esther D. Brimmer, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said.
The Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration said the policy changes “help safeguard the future of international education in the United States, the U.S. economy, and our country’s contributions to critical research by making clear that international students and scholars are welcome and that their talent and contributions are valued.” (The group also released a progress report on the Biden administration’s policies and actions on undocumented, refugee, and international students and scholars in its first year.)
Still, some said the policy changes didn’t go far enough, questioning why non-STEM graduates aren’t given the same work opportunities as those in science and engineering and why health-care fields aren’t included in STEM OPT.
In the Federal Register notice, DHS said that, except for minor technical changes, the list of majors eligible for STEM OPT hasn’t been updated since 2016. Many of those newly added are in emerging fields. The department noted that it had received 97 suggestions for fields to include over that period, from which in drew the fresh additions. The public may continue to submit nominations for inclusion.
At the same time, the largely regulatory changes are a reminder of the difficulties the Biden administration has had in realizing those goals through legislative action, such as through stalled measures to protect DACA and award green cards to international graduates in STEM.
What the Numbers Tell Us
A timely release of data from the National Science Board underscores challenges facing the U.S. in maintaining its global edge in science and technological talent.
The new report, The State of Science and Engineering 2022, highlights American reliance on international students to fuel innovation as well as how other countries, notably China, are catching up in key measures of research output. China has, in fact, outpaced the U.S. in its share of peer-reviewed science and engineering publications and is closing in on American universities’ decades-long dominance in the production of doctoral degrees in those fields.
International students account for a third of the graduate degrees awarded in science and engineering in the U.S. More than half of doctorates in economics, computer science, engineering, and mathematics and statistics awarded by American universities go to student-visa holders.
Although international students account for only 5 percent of U.S. higher-ed enrollments, they comprise a large share of graduates in these disciplines because they are far more likely than their American classmates to study in these fields. Half of student-visa holders major in science and engineering versus 35 percent of Americans.
This dominance translates into a key role in the American economy, the report notes: Foreign-born workers make up a fifth of the overall STEM workforce and 45 percent of those with doctoral degrees.
International enrollments fell during the pandemic, and Julia Phillips of the NSB warned that it’s not a “foregone conclusion” that numbers will bounce back, given the increasingly competitive global environment. The U.S. “must have a clear and predictable visa system and make sure that those who come here feel welcome and secure” if it wants to continue to attract top international students, she said during a briefing.
While enrollments from abroad declined less sharply during the pandemic at the graduate level than among undergraduates, the number of international students has been falling since 2016.
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Professor Cleared of China Charges
Charges have been dismissed against a prominent MIT professor who had been accused of hiding his research ties to China as part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s increasingly controversial China Initiative.
Federal prosecutors asked to drop the charges against Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering, after new evidence emerged that cast doubt on a government’s key contention, that Chen deliberately sought to hide his China affiliations on federal grant applications. In a statement, Rachael S. Rollins, the U.S. District Attorney in Boston, said that “after careful assessment…our office has concluded that we can no longer meet our burden of proof at trial.” A federal judge approved the request Thursday.
Chen released a brief statement: “While I am relieved that my ordeal is over, I am mindful that this terribly misguided China Initiative continues to bring unwarranted fear to the academic community and other scientists still face charges.”
In an op-ed published Friday in the Boston Globe, he asked Congress and the Justice Department to review his prosecution “to hold individuals accountable for this glaring misconduct.”
L. Rafael Reif, MIT’s president, hailed the dismissal of charges in a message to the university community, writing, “Having had faith in Gang from the beginning, we can all be grateful that a just outcome of a damaging process is on the horizon. We are eager for his full return to our community.” Somewhat unusually for a China Initiative case, MIT had continued to support Chen, who had pleaded not guilty, including paying for his legal bills.
The dismissal of charges, more than a year after they were brought, was hailed by Chen’s friends and colleagues, who had fought to clear his name.
Fellow researchers had argued Chen’s work in China was routine academic collaboration, declaring in an open letter, “We are all Gang Chen.”
What comes next for the beleaguered government probe is being closely watched by the higher education, scientific, and Asian American communities. Begun under the Trump administration to prevent researchers from passing scientific secrets to China, it has come under criticism for chilling international collaboration and for potential racial bias. Although prosecutors won a guilty verdict in a much-watched case against Harvard professor Charles M. Lieber, there have also been a number of setbacks, including several dismissals and an acquittal.
Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen, who has been tasked with reviewing the case, met last week with members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus who shared their concern that the investigation “has fallen far short of its stated goal of addressing economic espionage.” One possibility is that the “China Initiative” name could be dropped and its cases could be folded into the DOJ’s regular caseload.
In related news…
A former University of Arkansas professor pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement in not disclosing his China ties to federal grantmaking agencies. As part of the deal, in which Simon Ang could serve a year in prison and pay fines of $5,500, prosecutors agreed to drop all other charges against him.
A ProPublica investigation published in The Chronicle looks at another researcher caught in the China Initiative. His story may not add up.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman called the China Initiative “a clumsy tool used by anti-China forces in the U.S. to…suppress and contain China.”
Official mentions of talent-recruitment programs the Chinese government used to attract foreign scientists have all but disappeared. The programs themselves have not, Science reports.
Share Your Pandemic Stories
I am renewing my call from last week for readers interested in talking about their experiences as international-education professionals during Covid. I’m exploring the professional and personal impact the pandemic has had on this field and those who work in it. I’m also open to hearing from managers and leaders at colleges and organizations about strategies they have developed to support their colleagues in dealing with the stressors and strains of the past two years. I know some of this may be sensitive, so I can keep your name and institution unidentified. Your story could appear in a future newsletter. Email me at email@example.com.
Around the Globe
Arizona State’s Thunderbird School of Global Management is launching an online certificate program that will offer business courses in 40 languages worldwide and aims to reach 100 million learners by the end of the decade.
A quarter of U.S. consulates remain at least partially closed, and many of those that have reopened have record wait times for nonimmigrant visas, a new Cato Institute report shows.
The U.S. embassy in India said it had interviewed a record number of student-visa applicants for winter enrollments.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her members that she would prioritize legislation to improve U.S. research competitiveness. A refresher: a version of this bill that passed the Senate contained a number of provisions affecting international academic collaborations that universities found troubling.
A Princeton graduate student held hostage in Iran is suing the university, saying the institution was negligent for encouraging him to study in Iran and for not lobbying adequately for his release.
A court has ruled that the family of a U.S. student who died after being detained in North Korea should be awarded some of the country’s frozen assets.
California State University has added caste to its anti-discrimination policy.
FIRE has taken out mobile billboards in Boston denouncing Emerson College for punishing a conservative student group for handing out stickers critical of the Chinese government. The college said messages violated bias policy.
About a quarter of respondents in the latest Diversity Abroad survey of international-education professions identified as a member of a historically underrepresented racial or ethnic group.
Underclassmen at Duke Kunshan University won’t be able to study abroad at the Duke campus next fall because of capacity issues.
Australia is relaxing work rules for international students and offering to rebate visa application fees to help draw back students from abroad.
A petition is calling on the Japanese government to ease border closures for foreign students and researchers.
The European Commission has released a working paper addressing how to handle risks from foreign interference in its universities.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that universities there have the right to set their own disciplinary policies.
Taliban security forces pepper sprayed women protesting for the right to work and study.
Hong Kong’s public universities saw a steep drop in enrollments in the last academic year, which many link to increased emigration related to tightening restrictions on speech and politics.
Young Chinese are buying local. Is it the pandemic, patriotism, eco-consciousness, or just a desire to be different than their parents?
’Til next week —Karin