US ‘faces minimum 30 per cent decline’ in international enrolment

Uncertainty over whether on-campus tuition will be able to go ahead leaves commencing students in visa jeopardy

August 4, 2020
US border immigration
Source: iStock

The US higher education sector should be prepared for a minimum 30 per cent decline in international student enrolment in the coming academic year, an expert has warned.

Brad Farnsworth, vice-president for global engagement at the American Council on Education, said that US universities were facing “many obstacles” in their bid to recruit overseas students and there was “not a lot of time to solve them”.

Last month US immigration officials issued new guidance saying that new international students, unlike continuing international students, would not be able to come to the US to take an entirely online course of study, as coronavirus forces more campuses to drop plans for face-to-face tuition.

But even those students who would be enrolling in hybrid or in-person courses face barriers. Mr Farnsworth said that there was a “backlog” of visas to be processed, not helped by the fact the administration has refused to waive the requirement for a face-to-face interview, while flights to the US from the two most important source countries of overseas students – China and India – have been restricted.

Mr Farnsworth said that he was projecting a “minimum decline of 30 per cent” in the coming academic year.

“The reason I say ‘minimum’ is because we are seeing institutions moving from a hybrid status, which would allow them to get visas for their students, to fully online status, which would prevent them bringing international students here. That’s strictly because of the deteriorating situation with Covid here in the US,” he said.

“I really want to emphasise that that 30 per cent decline is minimum and it could grow worse.”

The new immigration guidance says that students will not be at risk of deportation if their institutions switch from an in-person or hybrid mode to an online-only mode mid-term because of the pandemic.

Mr Farnsworth said that some universities that were planning on fully remote teaching could try to dodge the policy by introducing in-person elements, but he said that “because of the overarching concern about student safety we’re seeing more students going from hybrid status to online status”.

The University of California, Berkeley, is currently planning online-only tuition but has said that it hopes to revert to a hybrid model “as soon as local health officials permit it”.

Diana Harvey, Berkeley’s associate vice-chancellor for communications and public affairs, acknowledged that the uncertainty about whether in-person tuition could resume created uncertainty for international students and “we are recommending that they think very carefully about any decision they will be making to enter the country and the likely impact on their visa status”.

A survey by the Institute of International Education found that 52 per cent of 520 institutions said that they faced a decline in international student applications this year compared with last year. The survey also found that 87 per cent of universities plan to offer hybrid instruction in autumn 2020.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: US faces ‘large decline’ in foreign enrolment

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