Foreign students facing US expulsion find few alternatives

Late move by Trump leaves Canada and UK with few options for bailing out victims of new student visa restrictions

July 14, 2020
Source: iStock

Canadian and UK educational leaders are showing compassion towards international students caught in the Trump administration’s deportation threats − but the two countries appear to be rather limited in terms of how they can actually help.

Their worries centre on the 1 million foreign students attending US colleges whose futures have been thrown into disarray by a Trump administration order designed to force US campuses to offer in-person classes this autumn.

The order requires that international students, to maintain their visas, must attend in-person classes if their institution offers them, and that they cannot remain in the US if their university moves entirely online.

The administration’s homeland security secretary described the planned rule as being part of its broader strategy to force a quick revival of US economic activity, even as virus cases are booming nationwide.

The US’ actions “are certainly concerning to us”, said Paul Davidson, president of Universities Canada, the nation’s main higher education association.

It “would be great” if the UK could accept international students in the US as transfers, wrote Jo Johnson, a former UK universities minister and brother of the prime minister, Boris Johnson.

Realistically, however, there are major obstacles to such ideas, starting with the very brief time left before the autumn semester begins, which would make it extremely difficult to process large volumes of student transfers.

“That’s the bigger problem than capacity,” said Martin Basiri, the chief executive officer of ApplyBoard, a Canada-based student recruitment service.

The potential crisis for international students in the US does raise some possibility of benefiting colleges in Canada and the UK. Both countries, like the US, host large numbers of foreign students and face enrolment declines this autumn as students struggle with rising tuition costs and travel and economic hardships related to the pandemic.

ApplyBoard is offering targeted advice and online application assistance to help international students in the US transfer to colleges within the US that are planning in-person classes or to universities abroad that can accept them.

But US campuses offer no guarantees of safety because the shifting nature of the pandemic could force sudden closures at universities currently planning to be open, and the Trump policy would invalidate visas at any point where a campus moves entirely online.

Mr Basiri acknowledged that arranging overseas alternatives was also difficult because of limits on how many additional students colleges could quickly accept, as well as constraints on how many visas even a highly cooperative government such as Canada could process quickly.

At the very most, he said, Canada − which already has more than 26,000 of its own citizens at US colleges − could perhaps take an additional 20,000 to 40,000 students this autumn from the US. The UK, with about 11,000 in the US, could perhaps take 10,000 to 25,000, he said.

“We are not the absolute solution. We are just a Band-Aid,” Mr Basiri said of ApplyBoard’s transfer assistance tools.

Another Canadian higher education expert, Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, was even more dubious. Canada probably could find room for some top-level graduate students, and for students in community colleges, Mr Usher said. “For everyone else, they are shut out,” he said.

In the UK, Mr Johnson pleaded on Twitter for an “emergency scheme” to let qualified foreign students in the US transfer to UK institutions. But the UK government, which was already tightening rules on foreign students, has not shown signs of picking up the suggestion.

Canada’s universities have taken steps to support their own foreign students during the pandemic, Mr Davidson said. Universities Canada, however, has heard of no examples of Canadian universities acting, so far, to actively help foreign students in the US transfer to Canada.

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