Is Trump scaring away international students?

opinion December 26, 2018 01:00

By Bajinder Pal Singh
Special to The Nation

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As new enrolments of international students in the United States falls for the third consecutive year, a question looms large for US universities and colleges. Is Donald Trump to blame for this decline?



New enrolments in the US dropped by 6.6 per cent in 2017-2018, a trend that was first observed in the 2015-2016 academic year. While the US continues to be the destination of choice for foreign students, this year close to half of all institutions reported a drop in numbers of foreign students, with the strongest decline (4 per cent) seen in the Midwest, followed by the West and the South.

The drop is being attributed to several factors. The Autumn 2018 Report of the International Student Enrolment Hot Topics published by the Institute of International Education (IIE) identifies four contributing factors: difficulties obtaining visas, the US social and political climate, increasing global competition for talent, and the increasing cost of higher education. The Trump administration has had a direct impact on the first two while significantly contributing to the third.

Reports of racist language and graffiti, activities of white nationalist student groups, a spike in advocacy of alt-right movements on campus, and distribution of provocative fliers have forced colleges to work harder at allaying fears among prospective students. The Anti-Defamation League reported a 77-per-cent increase in activities of white supremacist groups targeting college campuses during the 2017-2018 academic year, with the distributed materials often being inspired by Trump-related themes of the “Caravan” of migrants and “Making America American”.

With 92 per cent of responding institutions cited in the IIE report stating that “the current social and political climate impacted their campus either positively or negatively over the past year”, universities will find it challenging to convince students to opt for the US amid increasing global competition for talent.

Other measures resulting from Trump policies have also increased apprehension among prospective students. Though the rhetoric is focused on border and immigration controls, recent plans by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services to redefine the term “unlawful presence” for people holding student visas and in exchange programmes have caused concern among potential applicants.

Two-thirds of international students in the US come from China and India, and incidents of visa restrictions, particularly for Chinese students, are beginning to spoil the pitch for universities. With the US security establishment voicing concerns about academic institutions being infiltrated, there are reports that key aides of President Trump have even suggested a blanket ban on all student visas from China. If the single largest source of incoming international students is targeted, US universities will find it more difficult to attract Chinese students. Moreover, universities in China are climbing up the global rankings, thereby taking the relative sheen off their North American and European counterparts.

Equally crucial are reactions both within and outside the US. To dispel notions of racism that may hamper student applications, US college recruitment fairs are emphasising diversity and inclusiveness while at the same time showcasing the achievements of international faculty and students. Colleges are also devoting considerable time to facilitating visa applications and making the process appear less daunting for applicants.

Secondly, countries with robust higher education systems are opening their borders to international students. Australia is already a huge educational destination, while universities in mainland Europe are launching English-language programmes. Scandinavian countries now regularly highlight such programmes while encouraging internships and academic partnerships with BRICS countries.

China itself is an extremely attractive option for students. Aided by the spread of Chinese language classes and substantive scholarships, international students from both Asia and Africa are looking at China as an educational destination. It is now estimated that of the 26 million college students in China, half a million are international students. 

For the United States this could be bad news, since for almost 150 years its universities have been magnets for global talent. The US “brand” has long enticed the best international brains, thus contributing to US universities’ research capabilities and the country’s human capital. Moreover, international students are a major earner, contributing $42.4 billion (Bt1.38 trillion) to the US economy in 2017.

In 1862, the Morrill Act incentivised the creation of universities and contributed to the emergence of the United States as a superpower in the 20th century. In 2018, can the US maintain its pre-eminent position? Or will Trump’s policies upend the status quo and create space and opportunities for others to challenge American supremacy in education?

Bajinder Pal Singh is director of Media and Communications at the Asian Institute of Technology.