Photo by Jo Coenen

Legislation fast-tracked in the U.S. House would exempt STEM Ph.D. graduates from green-card caps. It would also toughen international research disclosures, expand foreign-language study, and establish a U.S. alternative to Confucius Institutes. 

What’s in the America COMPETES Act

A U.S. House bill aimed at boosting American competitiveness would exempt STEM Ph.D. graduates from numerical limits on immigrant visas — and require them to pay a supplemental fee to fund scholarships for low-income American students in science and engineering.

The measure would effectively staple a green card to the doctoral diploma of qualifiying international students in STEM, a long-held priority of college groups. The green-card exemption would also extend to immigrants who earn STEM Ph.D.s from foreign universities, if they are equivalent.

The America COMPETES Act is the House counterpart to Senate legislation passed last year aimed at countering Chinese competitiveness. Like the Senate measure, the bill, which could be taken up as soon as this week, contains a number of new reporting requirements for colleges and researchers engaged in international collaborations. It also provides millions in new federal R&D spending, much of which could go to universities.

But the legislation also has some surprising new provisions — for one, it would set up a U.S. government program for the study of Chinese language to replace Chinese-funded Confucius Institutes.

Buried in the 2,912- page bill are a number of provisions that are important to international education. Let’s run through them:

The bill would prohibit federal-grant recipients from participating in “malign” foreign talent recruitment programs, including those sponsored by the governments of China, Iran, and Russia. Researchers and colleges would have to certify that no members of their research team are participants in the programs, which seek to gain expertise by offering foreign researchers stipends and appointments.

Colleges would be required to disclose any foreign grants or contracts of $100,000 or more in one year or $250,000 over three years to the U.S. Department of Education. While the House bill lowers the threshold for annual reporting from the amount in current law, $250,000, the Senate measure went further, mandating disclosure of $50,000 or more from an overseas source.

  • Individual faculty and staff members would be required to report contracts or gifts from foreign entities of $50,000 or more — a new requirement. The bill also spells out processes for both colleges and the Education Department to follow.

The measure would put in place new transparency requirements for Confucius Institutes, the Chinese language and cultural centers. The Education Department, in consultation with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, would review all Confucius Institute agreements to ensure that they protect academic freedom and give full managerial and curricular control to the American partner. Colleges that fail to comply could lose access to federal higher-education funding.

  • This language doesn’t go as far as the Senate bill, which would have barred Education and National Science Foundation funding to colleges that host Confucius Institutes.
  • Nonetheless, the bill’s authors make clear they would like to see alternatives to the centers. The legislation would set up the Liu Xiaobo Fund for the Study of Chinese Language within the U.S. Department of State, named for the Chinese human-rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner, to fund study of Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese as well as Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian, and 24 other contemporary spoken languages of China.
  • It also establishes a new United States-Taiwan Cultural Exchange Foundation to send high school and college students to Taiwan to study Chinese language, culture, and politics. Taiwan has been trying to position itself as an option for Chinese study.

International education programs under Title VI of the Higher Education Act would be reauthorized to increase and expand foreign-language and area studies at American universities. The bill specifically seeks to grow international-education capacity at minority-serving institutions.

Finally, the bill would exempt STEM Ph.D.s (and their spouses and children) from the green-card cap, provided they are planning to work in the United States in a related field.

  • It also would charge them a supplemental fee of $1,000 to go to scholarships to help low-income U.S. students study STEM.

Caveats, caveats. This legislative proposal is just a starting point. It could face opposition, and individual provisions will almost certainly change. More than 500 amendments have been submitted to the House Rules Committee, among them proposals to lower the threshold for universities to report foreign funds, bar colleges with Confucius Institutes from receiving any federal money, and include international graduates in health-related disciplines in the STEM exemption.

A fast track? House leaders have said the bill is a priority, and heading off the economic and innovation threat posed by China is one of the few issues that receives bipartisan agreement these days. Although there are differences between the bills, “the Democratic leadership in both the House and the Senate will see this thing across the goal line,” Sen. Todd C. Young, the legislation’s top Republican sponsor in the Senate, said last week.

What did I miss? Shoot me an email and let me know if there are provisions I skipped or details I didn’t catch. And please use that address to share any story ideas, feedback, or tips.

China Initiative Round-Up

The FBI’s top expert on research security with China said the agency will shift its strategy on the China Initative, moving away from a prosecutorial approach.

Patrick Shiflett, FBI supervisory intelligence analyst, told a meeting of the American Physical Society that the agency would put more emphasis on using regulations to deal with issues of research security and transparency, rather than going to court.

“We realized our strategy needs to adjust” after listening to feedback from the higher-ed and research communities, he said.

Officials had been signaling in off-the-record comments that the Biden administration would move away from the more-aggressive probe of economic and academic espionage with China, especially after several dismissals and court defeats. But Shiflett spoke in a public forum about the new direction.

However, the FBI expert made clear in his remarks that the FBI continues to have concerns about China’s “abuse of access to the U.S. academic community” to build up its own technological know-how, some of which could benefit the Chinese military.

In other news, a federal judge dealt a blow to the federal government’s case against a University of Kansas professor accused of concealing his ties to China. Judge Julie A. Robinson excluded the testimony of a key government expert saying it could “color the trial with national-security overtones.” Franklin Tao, she noted, is not charged with espionage or theft of trade secrets, and testimony about broader Chinese government policy raised the “danger of unfair prejudice, confusing the issues, and misleading the jury.”

Robinson wrote that the testimony “also poses a significant risk of stoking Sinophobia, especially given that Defendant, who is Chinese, faces trial amid increasing reports of anti-Asian discrimination and violence since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic — and evoking exactly the kind of negative emotional response that might ‘lure the [jury] into declaring guilt on a ground different from proof specific to the offense charged.’”

And a MIT researcher cleared of China Initiative charges called on faculty and university leaders to “stand up and speak out” against the investigations. The probe is “damaging” for research and science, Gang Chen said. “This chilling effect will really hurt everybody.” But Chen says he doesn’t know if he’ll ever feel safe applying for U.S. government research funds again.

Settlement in Fake University Case

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has released the details of a proposed legal settlement related to a fake university it set up as part of a student-visa sting operation.

The department is settling a class-action lawsuit brought by former students of the University of Northern New Jersey without admitting wrongdoing. (A judge must still approve the settlement.)

Federal agents set up UNNJ a decade ago as they combatted an outbreak of sham universities that attempted to use the student-visa system as a way to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. Masquerading as representatives of the for-profit institution, agents set up a website — with a Latin motto and campus mascot — and maintained an extensive social-media presence.

It’s not the only such sting — authorities ran a similar phony institution, the University of Farmington.

Officials said they hoped to target brokers and recruiters involved in such “pay to stay” schemes. In 2016, they pulled the plug on UNNJ, arresting 21 people. They also terminated the visas of students at UNNJ for being “fraudulently enrolled.” A group of the students sued, saying Homeland Security didn’t give them the opportunity to appeal their termination.

In the settlement notice, the department denied all allegations of wrongdoing but said it was settling to “avoid the expense and inconvenience of continuing to litigate the case.”

Under the settlement, the government would, among other actions:

  • Not use UNNJ enrollment as a criteria to find people inadmissable to the U.S. or deportable;
  • Not deny future immigration benefits based on UNNJ enrollment;
  • Move to dismiss removal proceedings; and
  • Permit UNNJ students to apply for reinstatement to student status if they are admitted to a new college and meet other requirements.

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Around the Globe

The College Board will roll out the new digital SAT first at international testing sites.

The State Department plans to hire dozens of foreign service officers to help deal with a visa processing backlog

One student was killed and three others were wounded when a fellow student opened fire in a lecture hall at a German university.

Brazil, Ghana, and Turkey are among the “next frontiers” for international-student recruitment, according to a report from Studyportals and Unibuddy.

The UK met its foreign-enrollment targets a decade ahead of schedule.

British universities could be hit with 10 days of walkouts next month over pay and pensions. 

Female students in Morocco have flooded social media with stories about professors pressuring them for sexual favors in exchange for good grades after a high-profile conviction.

An Australian premier reversed course and allowed international students left in limbo to return to classes after quarantining.

A Dutch university said it would return funds it had received from a Chinese law center that had denied Chinese government human-rights violations against ethnic minorities.

China has advanced on a pair of global rankings while fewer U.S. universities make the cut, according to a new analysis from Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

The job market for new college graduates in China is getting tougher.

About a quarter of respondents in the latest Diversity Abroad survey of international-education professionals identified as a member of a historically underrepresented racial or ethnic group. 

Six CUNY professors are suing their local union after it passed a resolution supporting the Palestinian people.

New podcast alert! Global Scholar Stories is from the Journal of International Students

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And finally…

Here’s a fun international-ed-related question:

My tongue-in-cheeck answer would be to learn German — with a name like Karin Fischer, I always disappoint German-speakers with my lack of linguistic ability. My honest-to-god answer would to be truly proficient in Chinese. Alas…

What about you? If the foreign-languages fairy could give you sudden fluency, what language would you pick?

’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.