US suspends Fulbright-Hays foreign-language penalty

Answering lawsuit, Biden administration agrees – for now – that native speakers can get full credit for foreign language mastery

July 27, 2022
English language test
Source: iStock

The Biden administration has agreed under pressure to suspend a testing provision found to be disadvantaging foreign-language speakers who apply for a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship.

The provision limited native speakers of a foreign language to no more than 10 of the 15 points available on the portion of the Fulbright-Hays application that assesses foreign language proficiency.

It was challenged in federal court by a conservative civil rights group, the New Civil Liberties Alliance, which called the Fulbright-Hays policy a matter of unlawful discrimination.

While the case proceeds in a federal court in Texas, a US Education Department spokesman said in response to questions that the administration “has chosen to revisit” the provision cited by the civil liberties alliance.

The alliance said that it would persist with the court case, and with negotiations with the department, in an attempt to get the language provision changed permanently.

The 15 points for foreign language proficiency are part of a 105-point scale for assessing Fulbright-Hays applicants. The native-language penalty is unconstitutional, the civil liberties alliance said, because it effectively makes national origin a decisive factor in access to federal education assistance, significantly harming immigrants from non-English-speaking countries and their children.

“It also violates the Fulbright-Hays Act itself, which does not allow the department to award Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Fellowships based on whether the foreign language used for the research is ‘native’ or ‘non-native’ to the applicant,” the group said in announcing the department’s decision.

The Education Department spokesman declined to discuss the reasoning behind the foreign-language penalty or any details of the decision to temporarily suspend it.

The Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship is one of several US cultural exchange programmes dating back to the post-World War II era. It has provided more than 6,300 fellowships for doctoral studies abroad since 1964. In the 2021 fiscal year it awarded 138, at an average value of nearly $40,000 (£33,000) each.

Its operations are managed by the Education Department, unlike the more popularly known Fulbright exchanges managed by the State Department, which fund US scholars to study abroad and foreign scholars to visit the US.

The question of applying foreign-language testing requirements to native speakers has already proven controversial for higher education around the world. Both the UK and Canada have faced protests over college admissions policies that require English-language competency tests for students from some but not all foreign countries. In Canada, students from some African countries have complained recently that they are disproportionately subjected to such tests even though grade-school instruction in their home nations is in English.

The New Civil Liberties Alliance filed its case on behalf of Samar Ahmad and Edgar Ulloa Lujan, both doctoral candidates at Georgetown University. Ms Ahmad was born in Kuwait and raised speaking Arabic, while Mr Lujan grew up in Mexico speaking Spanish.

A written stipulation jointly filed with the federal court in Texas by the alliance and by the Education Department grants Ms Ahmad and Mr Lujan and all other Fulbright-Hays applicants this year the right to be considered for all 15 points on the language proficiency measure, and gives the department until mid-September to respond to the overall lawsuit.

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