Clarify misperceptions edition

Is the Trump administration just misunderstood when it comes to Chinese students?

U.S. Welcoming, Official Says

For the last two years, higher education has been trying to send the message to international students: You are welcome here. 

Now, the Trump administration says it’s trying to do the same thing. In a speech last week to a State Department-sponsored conference on international students, Marie Royce, assistant secretary of state for education and cultural affairs, said she wanted to "clarify misperceptions people have on the U.S. government’s stance on students and scholars from China."

President Trump, Royce said, quoting his remarks at the recent G-20 summit, wants "Chinese students to come and use our great schools, our great universities. They have been great students and tremendous assets.”

Royce’s talk at the EducationUSA Forum struck many international educators as curious. After all, it’s the nativist, anti-foreigner rhetoric whipped up by the president and members of his administration that led in the first place to efforts to reassure students that American campuses remain welcoming places. Just days earlier, the FBI director Christopher Wray testified before Congress that Chinese graduate students and researchers were part of a “pipeline” for academic espionage. 

At best, the Trump administration has sent mixed messages about its stance on Chinese students. Its policies, though, have been less equivocal. It is inarguably more difficult for Chinese students to come to study in the U.S. than it was two years ago. Like all travelers, students from China must go through enhanced vetting, such as disclosing their social media activity. 

Other changes have singled them out. Chinese graduate students in certain sensitive fields now must reapply for a visa each time they want to enter the United States, a reversal of the policy of multi-year, multi-entry visas. For a time, officials considered an outright ban on all students from China.

Still, Royce noted that student visa denials for Chinese applicants have declined for each of the last four years. In 2019, she said, just 0.0001 percent of student visa applicants from China have been refused on academic-espionage grounds.

But just what does that statistic mean? When Elizabeth Redden of Inside Higher Ed tried to get clarity on Royce’s language, she was told only that the number of visa denials are down. Since the number of total visas issued to Chinese students has also declined, it’s unclear what the trend actually has been for the rate of visa refusals.

Adam Julian, a longtime expert in student-visa matters, pointed out to me that students are rarely denied visas for espionage concerns. Instead, the reason given – if any is at all – is typically more mundane.

Royce also argued that Chinese students live in a bubble in which their views are shaped by Chinese-government propaganda. Because they get their news disproportionately from WeChat and Chinese-language websites, Chinese students could form negative views about the U.S. and be “reluctant” to engage with their American classmates.

Look, it’s certainly the case that Chinese students have struggled to integrate. A Purdue survey found that just 16 percent of students had an improved perception of the U.S. since coming to study here, while 42 percent said their impression had worsened. The share of students with negative opinions has grown since a comparable study two years earlier.

The bubble is real, but what’s the cause? Yes, there’s been more anti-American sentiment in the Chinese media, but students also absorb unwelcoming attitudes and negative news coverage from within the U.S. And a lack of close ties with American students doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of desire.

Royce is right to challenge colleges to do more to ensure that Chinese students feel fully a part of campus. I think most international educators understand that need. 

But many in the field I’ve talked with said there seemed to be a lack of recognition in Royce’s remarks of the role that the government, through its actions and its words, plays in sending the message that Chinese students are indeed welcome in the United States. Bizarre, is how one person characterized Royce’s speech to me. Disappointing, said another. “I think she missed an opportunity to engage in a meaningful way,” said a third. “To explain the concerns, and to thank us for all that we do.”

Students’ decisionmaking is too complex to pin recent international enrollment declines solely on the election of President Trump. But let’s not pretend there is no “Trump effect” at all.

Have additional thoughts on the speech or on international-student trends? Share them on Twitter. I’m @karinfischer.

FBI Questions China Program Grads

The FBI has been questioning American graduates of a prestigious Chinese master’s degree program to see if they have been co-opted by Chinese espionage efforts. NPR first reported that agents have been reaching out to alumni of Peking University’s Yenching Academy to see if they have been approached by Chinese authorities. Here’s how a Yenching graduate named Brian Kim describes his meeting with the FBI:

One of the agents asked if anyone in China had tried to recruit Kim for espionage efforts. Who had encouraged Kim to apply for the Yenching program in the first place?

"I literally told them the Princeton fellowship office" had recommended he apply, says Kim, who has a bachelor's degree from Princeton University.

In a statement, program administrators told NPR, "We are deeply concerned about the possible effects of unwarranted official scrutiny on the morale and career development of our alumni, and we strongly request that the U.S. government cease any intrusive or unjustified investigations of our Yenching scholars." 

The interviews seem to be one more manifestation of U.S. government concerns about higher ed’s vulnerability to Chinese spying. Yenching is partly funded by the Chinese government. About a third of its 125 students are American or Canadian.

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Around the Globe

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Hong Kong has been convulsed with protests over how much autonomy the city should have from mainland Chinese authorities. Universities there are a microcosm of the tensions.

Clashes between mainland Chinese and Hong Kong students have also broken out at Australian universities.

Nearly 700,000 students are studying overseas for a British degree. Forty percent of them are enrolled in a single university.

Male professors in Canada report higher job satisfaction, on average, than their female colleagues, according to this sneak peek of an international survey of the academic profession.

And finally…

Thank you.

Latitude(s) just hit its six-month mark. Much gratitude to everyone who has been reading along. I know there have been some growing pains, but I have been enjoying this new medium and hope you have too. I appreciate all the shout-outs and encouragement and words of advice, the feedback to my pieces and the story suggestions. International education is such a collaborative field, and I want to continue to make this newsletter a space that reflects your interests and your priorities. As always, please don’t hesitate to reach out – I spend entirely too much time on Twitter @karinfischer, and you can email me at

This is usually the place where I say I’ll see you next week, but latitude(s) is taking a brief break. I’ll be using the hiatus to get married. Catch you in a couple of weeks!

’Til next week – Karin

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