Trump’s ICE U-turn will not save universities from the fallout

A string of anti-immigration moves has already made the US significantly less attractive to international students, says Rajika Bhandari

July 16, 2020
Keep out sign

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s announcement last week that international students should go home if their US campuses are unable to provide on-campus instruction in the autumn always looked arbitrary. Hence, it is no surprise that the government has backed down in the face of a widespread outcry and legal threats from some of the country’s most prominent institutions, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Still, it will be a huge relief to the higher education sector – as well as the industry sectors that rely on imported talent. The most obvious consequence of the ruling, should campuses have needed to shut down, would have been the displacement of the current 1.1 million international students from more than 200 countries who study in the US. This would not only have seen universities lose out on their fees, it would potentially have amounted to a loss of $45 billion (£36 billion) to the US economy. Degrees are among the country’s top five service exports, and the presence of international students helped create 458,000 jobs in 2019.

Moreover, many international students stay on in the US, becoming professors, doctors, entrepreneurs, writers, artists, philanthropic and government leaders. Immigrants are credited with founding more than half of all start-ups in Silicon Valley, for instance, and almost 40 per cent of US-based Nobel laureates since 2000 have been immigrants who probably came to the US as students. Conversely, the international students who return home become the strongest vehicle for US global influence and soft diplomacy. It is well known that more than 60 world leaders have been educated in the US.

But even though the ICE policy will not now be enacted, it is still likely to contribute to a growing sense that the US no longer values international students. Its announcement came in the wake of numerous other moves by the Trump administration that have damaged  the attractiveness of US institutions to overseas students.

First there were the travel bans that affected international students from certain Muslim countries. Then there was a proposal that all international students should have to reapply for a visa each year. Then the future of Optional Practical Training (OPT), a popular post-study work programme for international students, was called into question. And, most recently, the issuing of green cards and H1B visas – which universities often use to hire overseas postdocs and that enable international students to join the U.S. workforce – was frozen.  

According to the Business Roundtable, these measures could see US GDP decline by a quarter of a percentage point by 2028, alongside a loss of 443,000 jobs over the next decade (including 255,000 jobs held by US-born workers) and a 17 per cent decline in the average real hourly wage.

International students vote with their feet. For the first time since 9/11 and its aftermath, the number of new and enrolled international students in the US has declined over the past couple of years, especially in the advanced degrees that directly fuel scientific progress and innovation. And a new report by the National Foundation for American Policy projects that many US institutions will see a decline of between 63 per cent and 98 per cent in the enrolment of new international students for the 2020-2021 academic year. And repeated surveys of current and prospective international students in the US reflect a growing concern about whether the country is a safe and welcoming destination.

The disruptions to US higher education and industry caused by the pandemic are bad enough: let us not make the damage permanent. Instead of proposing a mass eviction of well over a million individuals and other such unreasonable policies, the US government should work closely with colleges and universities during this unprecedented and difficult time to identify practical, safe, and humane solutions that work for institutions and students; all students.

What is ultimately at stake is the slow erosion of the US’ role as a world leader in ideas and knowledge and a diminishing of its global influence. If we keep victimising international students, the US will no longer be the beacon of possibility, opportunity and innovation that draws the world’s top talent to its shores.

Rajika Bhandari is president and CEO of the IC3 Institute and author of a forthcoming book on the value of international students.

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