Decline in foreign scholars hits US

August 18, 2006

Educators urge a review of restrictions on visas and lab access, reports Jon Marcus.

The US must streamline its chaotic student visa system as a matter of urgency, as a first step towards reversing declining numbers of overseas students.

Educators are imploring US leaders to make a commitment similar to Tony Blair's call for UK universities to recruit an additional 10,000 international students over the next five years.

The Association of International Educators appealed to the four government agencies that oversee foreign students to co-ordinate their policies, which contradict each other. The association also asked that restrictions on foreign scholars' access to US laboratories be lifted and that US consulates be allowed in some cases to waive the requirement that visa applicants appear in person for interview.

In a report, Restoring US Competitiveness for International Students and Scholars , the association describes "an international education landscape that has been transformed in recent years, to which the US has been curiously slow to respond".

Citing the UK, it says: "Numerous countries have implemented proactive recruiting strategies to attract international students and have adjusted their immigration and work laws to create a more welcoming climate."

But in America, the report adds, "there is still no strategy, no real policy or plan for protecting the US interest" in the international student market. It says: "What is most alarming is that, for the first time, the US seems to be losing its status as the destination of choice for international students. The US has lost the allure it once had."

High-profile cases in which international scholars have been barred from accepting US university jobs or attending conferences have created a climate in which "the near-universal perception of the nation's leading scientific associations is that their international members increasingly feel that the process of gaining entry to the US is not worth the trouble", the association says.

Meanwhile, India and China, for example, which send huge numbers of students to the US, are improving higher education at home. The European Higher Education Area pledged to attract more foreign students to Europe.

Scholars who want to come to the US remain caught in the visa bureaucracy and "the US Government is in worse disarray on this matter than it was before 9/11", the report states. To attract "the knowledge, innovation and skill we need from around the world", it adds, the US must create "a climate that encourages the contributions of international talent".

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