Banning Chinese students will hurt US colleges

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/13 19:03:41

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

China still sends the largest number of students to the US, at least for now. The annual Open Doors report released by the Institute of International Education in November found there were 363,341 Chinese mainland students studying in the US in the 2017-18 school year, making up 33 percent of the total.

Not a surprise. Since China surpassed India to become the No. 1 source of international students in the US in the 2009-10 school year, it has held on to that spot. Through the years, Chinese students, who contributed $14 billion to the US economy in 2017, have become a significant pillar for many American colleges. In some colleges, the sheer number of Chinese students is striking as soon as you come across their large groups. In 2015, a roll call list for the graduating class of the master's program in statistics at Columbia University made headlines after it was posted on Twitter because, judging by the last names, more than 80 percent of the students were Chinese. One reader quipped, "Is this the American campus of a college in China?"

But how long this will last has become the key question. There are some warning signs beneath the surface. The growth of Chinese students in the US has been slowing down annually since peaking in the 2009-10 school year, from 30 percent to 3.6 percent.

That is, of course, partly just a question of big numbers - as the base grows it is more difficult to record high growth figures. Also, it's part of the overall trend. The population of newly enrolled international students in the US has been dropping since Donald Trump took over the White House. Last year, for example, the number of F-1 visas issued to students by the US State Department dropped 17 percent. But the decline in newly enrolled Chinese students is steeper, with the F-1 visas issued to them dropping by a huge 24 percent last year.

Apprehensive about a major revenue source drying up, some colleges have started to prepare for the worst. For example, the Gies College of Business and the engineering school of University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) jointly purchased a three-year insurance policy last year to hedge against dropping fee collections. If their revenue from Chinese students drops 20 percent or more in a year, they would be compensated up to $60 million.

It is not an overkill. Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president of Global Engagement and Research at Studyportals, a renowned scholar studying international students, looked at the latest enrolment statistics of some colleges that have a high concentration of Chinese students and found the decline continuing, if not accelerating. For example, the population of Chinese students at Michigan State University dropped 11 percent this year, 7 percent at Oklahoma State University and 3 percent at UIUC.

"The anti-immigrant rhetoric and stance of the US government coupled with the trade war is magnifying concerns among Chinese parents," said Choudaha. "Despite a high-quality higher education system and its welcoming attitude to Chinese students, the negativity created by the trade war and anti-immigrant rhetoric does not bode well for American universities and colleges."

The political climate doesn't seem to be turning around anytime soon. In the past year, the US government has been sending out a strong and disturbing message that Chinese students are not trustworthy and they may be involved in spying. In October, there were media reports that Stephen Miller, President Trump's senior political advisor, had suggested that the US stop issuing visas to Chinese students. The suggestion was shelved but hasn't been completely abandoned.

In July, the Trump administration started restricting visas for Chinese graduate students in some sensitive high-tech fields to one-year instead of the five years offered before. It's not unlikely that Miller's proposal could be accepted should the relationship between China and the US deteriorate.

I cannot say for certain that the US' concerns about Chinese students are completely unfounded. But I am sure they are overblown. To say all Chinese students are potential spies is just like saying all immigrants are criminals - it is an effective way to draw attention during populist times, but dead wrong. Monetary contribution aside, Chinese students in the US have been playing a significant role in helping people in both countries better understand each other. This shouldn't be missed out.

Asked about this recently after a speech on US-China relations, Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia and president of the Asia Society Policy Institute, said to maintain hundreds of thousands Chinese students in the US is a necessity for bringing maturity in relations between the two countries in the long run.

The US would be "nuts" to impose a ban on Chinese students, Rudd said. As for the national security related sensitive research projects, "don't let foreigners go in there," said Rudd. "You got a way of classifying research projects even within public universities, whereby, you can constrain those who participate."

This is a simple, fair and effective solution, which doesn't seem so hard to come up with. That is, for anyone who is qualified to do the job of policymaking.

The author is a New York-based journalist.


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