Making it official edition

The number of student visa-holders in the U.S. has fallen, new data shows

Sobering International Numbers

It’s official: International student enrollments are contracting.

New numbers from the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System quietly published last week show that there were 1,169,400 students on F and M student visas in spring 2019, down 32,600, or 2.7 percent, from the previous year.

Open Doors figures from the Institute of International Education have shown a falloff in new enrollments in the past two years, of course. Overall enrollments had continued to increase slightly, however, buoyed by graduates who stay on to work through the optional practical training program and who are counted in student-visa totals.

But the latest data, collected in real time, makes clear that OPT can no longer mask the decline. Each previous year – the visa data has been reported since 2014 – had seen an increase over the preceding year, although the increases had been growing smaller.

There are few bright spots. The number of students fell across all regions of origin, except for South America. Enrollments from the two largest sending countries, China and India, both dropped.

Of the five states that enroll the most international students, just one, Massachusetts, saw an increase from 2018.

The number of students in the U.S. for English-language study fell especially sharply, down 9.4 percent. English program enrollments, which often see the first and most precipitious changes, are off 40 percent from their high, in spring 2015.

Let’s be frank, the student-visa data merely confirms what we knew was coming. Seeing it in black and white, though, is sobering.

Nor should we think of this as a blip, as tempting as it may be. With the number of new students shrinking, future classes will be smaller, and growth in OPT participation has slowed.

Boom, meet contraction.

OK, now we know the numbers. Let’s talk about what you’re doing. What’s your strategy for a turnaround? Do you see promising new markets? Have you found ways to improve international-student retention? Send me your thoughts – email or tweet me @karinfischer. I’ll share submissions in this space next week.

Visa Wars?

First, Chinese students reported difficulty renewing their visas to study in the U.S. Then American officials reportedly barred some Chinese academics over spying fears. One professor told of being stopped as he prepared to board a flight home by FBI agents who drew a big X through the U.S. visa in his passport.

Now an American scholar who has advised President Trump was not given a visa to attend a conference in Beijing in what he says was retaliation for the U.S. visa restrictions. He’s not the only one to suggest there is a visa tit-for-tat occurring – the editor of China’s nationalistic Global Times newspaper speculated that other American researchers could also be denied visas:

American officials have cited concerns about Chinese intelligence-gathering, but some observers worry about the seepage of Chinese-American geopolitical tensions into academe. I was talking the other day with James Millward, a Georgetown professor who knows something about visa denials – he was unable to travel to China for some time because of his work on the independence movement in Xinjiang province:

“I worry that we’re on the verge,” he told me, “of U.S. government-driven demonization of Chinese students and scholars.”


  • The MD Anderson Cancer Center, which is affiliated with the University of Texas system, has ousted three senior researchers over National Institutes of Health violations and ties to China. My former colleague Mara Hvistendahl reports that the FBI has been investigating the center for several years over national-security issues.

  • Many Western institutions have become wary of partnerships with China, but Australia’s Monash University has signed a deal worth $100 million Australian over a decade to allow Chinese investors to commercialize university R&D.

Around the Globe

Stanford University has cleared a professor who mentored a Chinese researcher who controversially gene-edited twin babies, saying that he “observed proper scientific protocol.”

An Illinois bus company accused of mocking Asian students has settled a lawsuit from the state’s attorney general.

The European Association for International Education has released a report on indicators of successful internationalization.

Scholars thought a China studies journal would be published according to Western standards. Instead, it was subject to Chinese government censorship.

It’s a campus speech squabble with an international twist: Middlebury College canceled a talk by a far-right European politician, citing safety concerns.

A Scholars at Risk submission to the UN details attacks on higher education in Iran, including wrongful imprisonment and prosecution of academics and restrictions on student expression.

The number of foreign students studying in China is flattening.

A quarter of all petitions for H-1B work visas were denied in the final quarter of 2018. Three years earlier, the denial rate was 5 percent:

Got some international education news? Send it my way,

Mueller’s Shadowy Professor

Many years ago, when I was a young reporter, I had the unenviable task of buttonholing people to ask for their reaction to the lengthy and often-salacious Starr report. Which is to say, political scandal reporting has never really been my jam. So, I was pretty content on “Mueller Day” to leave that work to my former Washington colleagues.

But wouldn’t you know, the special counsel’s findings have a higher-education angle: It was a London-based professor who first told a Trump campaign foreign-policy advisor that Russia had “dirt” on rival Hillary Clinton. You can read new details about Joseph Mifsud, then at the London Academy for Diplomacy, in this searchable version of the Mueller report.

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And finally…

“At a port in Germany, 150 Steinway pianos are waiting to be shipped to this gateway city for the grand opening of the Juilliard School’s second campus.” So begins this New York Times piece about how the Chinese city of Tianjin borrowed billions to a bid to become “China’s Manhattan,” including underwriting an outpost of the performing arts conservatory. Today it’s more like a ghost town.

We often focus on the risks colleges face in opening international branch campuses. But the story illuminates the great stakes for their foreign partners.

’Til next week – Karin

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