US international recruitment down 43 per cent as pandemic hits

Covid massively accelerates decline that was already under way, seen as being driven by Trump administration policies

November 16, 2020
Flights cancelled
Source: iStock

The number of international students starting courses with US universities this term has nosedived by 43 per cent year-on-year, according to a major survey, as the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on academic mobility.

The figure represents the decline in the number of overseas learners starting courses either within the country or online outside it, with one in five new starters studying online from abroad, according to a snapshot survey completed by about 710 universities and released by the Institute of International Education alongside its annual Open Doors report on student mobility.

This means that US colleges’ overall international enrolment this term was down by 16 per cent compared with autumn 2019.

Some students may yet return: 90 per cent of responding institutions reported that international students had deferred their start date, and they indicated that nearly 40,000 learners had pushed their enrolment back to a future term.

But Open Doors, which is based on a much larger sample of more than 2,900 institutions and is based on 2019-20 data, shows that international students began abandoning the US sector well ahead of this year’s pandemic-driven shutdowns.

The total number of international students in the US declined by 1.8 per cent in 2019-20 compared with the year before, representing the first time in 60 years of data produced by the IIE and the State Department – other than a few years after the 9/11 attacks – that the total overseas student presence shrank.

Short-term losses to the country so far total more than 42,000 jobs and $1.8 billion (£1.4 billion) in revenue, with deeper repercussions likely, according to Nafsa: Association of International Educators, a leading group of student exchange advocates, which released fresh research alongside Open Doors.

The Trump administration has been “actively unhelpful” towards international students, said Rachel Banks, Nafsa’s senior director for public policy and legislative strategy. Its major recent actions include threatening foreign students with the loss of their visas if they did not study in-person during the pandemic, and initiating regulatory processes to create time-based rather than curriculum-based limits on student visa lengths.

“This current administration has an anti-immigrant agenda, and that gets woven into all the policies that they promulgate,” Ms Banks said.

Nevertheless, there were some signs that international student enrolment had been beginning to stabilise prior to the pandemic, with the number of new starters falling by only 0.6 per cent year-on-year, compared with a decline of 7 per cent over the previous two years.

China remained the top supplier of foreign students in the US, with its numbers even increasing by 3 per cent in 2019-20 in the face of determined Trump administration campaign to root out suspected military spies.

India remained the second-largest source, despite a 4 per cent decline in the number of its students in the US in 2019-20.

The Open Doors report found that 64 per cent of participating institutions spent as much or more in 2019-20 on international student outreach, and 82 per cent increased their online recruiting efforts.

“The fact that the trend line for decline in enrolments may not be as steep as it could be,” Ms Banks said, “is because US universities and colleges have done really outstanding work to get a message to prospective students that says, ‘Hey, you may be hearing that this country doesn’t want you, but we want you,’ and they’ve been putting in a lot of resources.”

At the same time, however, the main competitor nations – Canada, the UK, and Australia – have been taking advantage by making clear to students their acute understanding of the value of international exchanges, Ms Banks said. “They’re continuing to be out there, beating their drums,” she said.

The incoming Biden administration, with its promises to be far more welcoming to foreigners, offers “a chance to help turn things around”, Ms Banks said. “It’s not going to be overnight, but there’s an opportunity here.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Related articles

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Sponsored