Keeping the doors open to international students

The US was right not to close its borders to overseas students after 9/11, says Rajika Bhandari 

November 25, 2015
International students
Source: Getty

Last week, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released new Open Doors data showing that the number of international students coming to the US had jumped by 10 per cent to total almost 1 million students from more than 200 countries. As Times Higher Education reported, the largest cohort came from China, with 304,040 students at US universities and colleges, and the number of students from India rose by 29.4 per cent to 132,888. Fourth in the list was Saudi Arabia, with 53,919 students studying in the US. 

The release of this much-awaited annual data was tragically book-ended by the terrorist attacks in Paris and by statements from several governors in the US declaring that they would close the doors of their states to Syrian refugees because one of the Paris attackers posed as a refugee.

This short-sighted reaction is a sad reminder of what happened in the US after 11 September 2001, when one of the 19 terrorists had entered the US on an F-1 student visa.

Even before 9/11, there had been calls to tighten the screening and monitoring of America’s 583,000 international students, but their positive benefits to the US had never been seriously questioned. As the US government responded speedily by putting in place more rigorous checks and somewhat lengthier processes to carefully vet and monitor all potential foreign students, the numbers of such students initially dropped slightly. There were calls for a “pause” in the approval of incoming students, but wisdom prevailed and international students continued to be welcomed to American states and campuses.

If state governors back then had closed their academic doors to international students because of a misplaced fear that all international students were potential terrorists, then the very fabric of US higher education would have been radically altered from the globally competitive, world-class higher education system that we know today. International students have helped to internationalise US campuses, providing diverse and enlightening viewpoints for their American peers, most of whom never have the opportunity to study abroad. Many US campuses today count on their internationally diverse student body and faculty to attract talented students from all around the world, including the US. Most major university rankings today include an assessment of campus internationalisation and international enrolments, and US universities rely on these metrics to rank at the very top.

If US leaders post-9/11 had not seized the opportunity to expand rather than shrink the countrys global partnerships, the US today would likely not have remained the destination of choice for international students. Major new scholarship programmes launched by foreign governments would probably not have sent the majority of their fully funded students to study in the US, which would have prevented US campuses from boosting their international enrolments and therefore also expanding funding for their domestic students.

Contrary to all expectations and during the dark period after 9/11, President George W. Bush and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia launched the King Abdullah Scholarship Program in 2005, which to date has brought more than 100,000 Saudi men and women to the US and has thus created a whole generation of future US and Saudi leaders who better understand each others cultures and values. Other national programmes followed suit, including the Brazilian government’s highly successful scientific mobility programme, which has helped to build educational exchanges between the US and Brazil, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

International students in the US have gone on to contribute significantly to innovation, research and development both in the US and in their home countries. The latest research by AnnaLee Saxenian and Vivek Wadhwa shows that “new” American entrepreneurs, many of whom came to the US first as graduate students, have contributed significantly to launching companies that have gone on to employ thousands of other Americans – a true multiplier effect. Look at any major public or private US university today and you see international faculty who are helping to build academic and collaborative bridges between their institutions and those in other countries. International students who return to their home countries have expanded their own higher education systems and built academic exchanges with former US faculty and peers. It is this type of global academic exchange that has spurred the strong research and links that help the US to retain its commanding lead in STEM and other fields. The best science and innovation is, after all, borderless.

Lastly, the most tangible impact of restricting international students after 9/11 would have been the fact that the US economy would be poorer by $260 billion (£173 billion). This is the total amount that international students have contributed to the US economy since 2002. These contributions come from the two-thirds of international students who pay their own tuition and fees during their studies in the US, and cover the living expenses for themselves and any accompanying family members. The most recent data from the US Department of Commerce show that international students contributed $31 billion to the US in 2014 alone.

Refugees and international students are by no means one and the same (although some international students are indeed refugees), and the vast majority of international students come to the US by choice and not because of threat. Nonetheless, the US’s long tradition of welcoming and integrating its international students provides a useful lesson in how we can respond to others who seek American shores, and who may well bring human capital and other significant contributions that will only be fully realised over time.

Rajika Bhandari is deputy vice-president for research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education (IIE), which publishes the annual Open Doors report on international educational exchange with support from the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The institute has collected student mobility data since its founding in 1919. The IIE also administers scholarship and training programmes for governments, foundations and corporations, and assists students and scholars from countries in crisis through its Scholar Rescue Fund and Emergency Student Fund.

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