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US colleges push back on scrutiny of China students

By KONG WENZHENG and ZHANG RUINAN in New York | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-07-10 23:17

Chinese students at the University of Texas at Dallas in Richardson, Texas. LM OTERO / AP

Acknowledging the importance of Chinese students and scholars on their campuses, American universities and colleges are working hard to reassure Chinese students that they are welcome, amid mixed signals from the US government that have raised concerns among prospective students.

"The messaging is not consistent across our government" on issues concerning Chinese students coming to study in the US, said Brad Farnsworth, vice-president of internationalization and global engagement for the American Council on Education.

US President Donald Trump delivered a welcoming message during his June 29 meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, when he said that there are many excellent students in China and that he always welcomes Chinese students to study in the US, reported Xinhua.

Prior to that, the rhetoric in Washington was mostly negative against Chinese students and scholars, especially in light of security concerns. That had resulted in several cases of scholars from China or with Chinese affiliations being dismissed by US universities or research institutes.

A recent case involved the FBI, which reportedly urged US universities to develop protocols for monitoring their Chinese students and scholars from Chinese state-affiliated research institutions, according to National Public Radio.

Farnsworth also noted concerns over the student visas for Chinese students, as significant delays are being seen in the approval process. That had also resulted in a warning from the Chinese Ministry of Education, which alerted Chinese applicants of the potentially prolonged visa issuing process and tightened examinations.

The ministry said in early June that in the first quarter of 2019, 13.5 percent of Chinese scholars sponsored by the government to study in the US was declined a student visa, a sharp increase compared with the 3.2 percent of the same period last year.

"I heard that many Chinese students were asked more questions when they came to the US from China after Christmas," said Sherry Lin, who studies civil and urban engineering at New York University. "So, I didn't go back last winter, but instead, my parents came and visited me."

Some majors, namely those in the high-tech fields, are impacted more than others.

"My friend who studied mechanical engineering waited for three months for his visa to be checked," said Cathy Tang, who graduated from University of California, Berkeley two years ago as an economics major. "I, on the other hand, only waited for less than a week."

"If there is one thing that our government can do to make the US more attractive to Chinese students, it's to improve the process of reviewing visas. It is something that is taking a long time," said Farnsworth, who said he is still concerned about the impact recent policies and rhetoric could have on Chinese students, despite Trump's latest welcoming message.

Lin said the Trump administration's tightened scrutiny on Chinese students and scholars had a negative impact on Chinese students studying in the US. 

"Most Chinese students are following the policy changes very closely," Lin said. "Every time there's news about how Chinese students were denied visas or how Chinese scholars were treated unfairly by US universities, we discuss it in our chat groups and everyone seems to be very worried and disappointed."

Lin said her major concern was that the increasing restrictions on Chinese students will have a negative impact on her applications to PhD programs and her future studies in the US.

"I started applying to PhD programs in the US last year, but now I'm also searching for programs in the UK and Europe," Lin said. 

She said even if she could successfully enroll in programs in the US, she's not sure what will happen in the next few years. 

"I heard the restrictions on the H-1B visa application are also tightening," Lin said. "There are just so many uncertainties."

The possibility of losing those prospective Chinese students is what Farnsworth, who just came returned from a visit to China, where he heard from people there, worries about for US universities.

"It's very important to send the wide message" to potential Chinese students that they are welcome in the US, he said, "otherwise they have other very attractive options.

"They can go to the UK; they can go to Canada; they can go to Australia — and so I came away from my trip to China being even more concerned about the attractiveness of the US relative to other countries," said Farnsworth.

In the past decade, many US universities and colleges have turned to students from abroad to make up for rising costs and shrinking funding. There were about 1.1 million international students studying in the US in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE), and among them, more than 360,000 were Chinese.

For example, the University of Illinois's international community contributed about $475 million in economic impact and supports more than 7,300 jobs, according to the Association of International Educators. The full tuition they pay also helps fund need- and merit-based aid for in-state students.

More than 80 percent of US schools surveyed by the IIE said the delays and denials of international students visas under the Trump administration's scrutiny on international students have had a negative impact on their ability to enroll international students, Bloomberg News reports. 

Enrollment was flat from the 2016-17 academic year to 2017-18, while the Chinese student population increased 3.6 percent, the smallest gain in a decade, IIE said. 

The relationship between China and the US is "maybe the single most important bilateral relationship in higher education in our country", said Farnsworth.

"Obviously we are very happy to have one-third of all our international students come from China. They are an important source of revenue, but I think it's important to emphasize that they also provide other major benefits to institutions," he said.

Chinese students add to the cultural diversity of US institutions and create learning experiences for Americans. The research collaborations and academic partnerships between the US and China are also important to American universities.

The issue was addressed by top-ranking US universities recently.

The presidents of Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the chancellor of UC-Berkeley each sent out a campuswide email highlighting the significance of the Chinese community to the school.

Chinese and Chinese-American researchers are not only "exemplary members of our community but exceptional contributors to American society", wrote MIT President L. Rafael Reif in his letter.

"We believe that having a global student population is a foundational element of our institutional character and academic mission," UC-Berkeley assistant vice-chancellor Dan Mogulof told China Daily in an email. "So, in that context we will continue to ensure that every student on this campus, regardless of their country of origin, feels safe, respected, and welcome."

"A lot of campuses are working very hard to tell the international students they are very welcomed," said Farnsworth, who also highlighted a letter Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber and other New Jersey-based higher education leaders sent to the Congress in early May.

The letter expressed concerns that their institutions have in attracting and retaining international faculty, students and staff due to the administration's current immigration policies.

Farnsworth is seeing more activities of these kinds emerging given the importance of international students, especially Chinese students, to the US universities.

Mark Sang, CEO of Ivy Elite, an application consulting firm, is also seeing schools taking action on the issue.

"They are more actively guiding the students through their pre-departure preparations, helping them to successfully get their student visas," he said.

Sang is viewing more positively President Trump's recent comment and the future outlook of Chinese students' interests in US universities.

"I think Trump's comment is a response to the panic that previously prevailed among the current and prospective Chinese student community. That will alleviate some worries within the community and help put things back to normal," he said.

"After all, Chinese international students bring benefits to the US from many perspectives, and the US is most likely remaining the top target for Chinese students," said Sang.

Contact the writers at nancykong@chinadailyusa.com

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