China! China! China!
Been worrying about the travel ban? There’s another – and far, far bigger – threat looming on the horizon: the China effect.
Apple recently downgraded its financial forecast and pinned the blame on weakening Chinese iPhone sales, which the tech giant said could be a harbinger of a serious slowdown in the world’s second-largest economy. That got me thinking: What could a recession in China mean for American colleges, which have increasingly come to depend on Chinese tuition dollars?
It’s not just the economic forecast that threatens Chinese-American education relationships. Tensions have been riding high between Washington and Beijing, with both sides threatening a trade war. Since taking office, the Trump administration has either undertaken or considered a number of policies that directly target Chinese students. Meanwhile, there’s been a steady ramping up of Chinese-spies-on-university-campuses rhetoric from public officials.
I laid out the case for why China could be the new travel ban in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education. But let me make a few points:
This is serious. China sends more than 360,000 students to the United States, who contribute $12 billion-with-a-B to the American economy. One in three international students is from China.
It’s not just about enrollments, however. China is an integral partner to American colleges in many ways, far and away the top priority for research partnerships, joint degrees, and other international engagement, according to a recent American Council on Education survey. Its doctoral students are critical to the next generation of researchers and professors at American universities, especially in STEM fields.
As Kevin Kinser at Penn State told me:
“With China, the relationships are existential.”
We don’t really know how this will play out. I got some pushback on Twitter from people making the point that Chinese families fund American degrees from their savings and there’s no evidence they would suddenly pull back from long-term investments. True. What’s more, many Chinese students opt out of their homegrown higher-education system when they decide to study abroad, which could potentially make them more locked in to that path.
But it’s also nearly impossible to cite precedent in this situation. The modern wave of Chinese students – undergraduates and master’s students who, by and large, pay their own way – is barely a decade old. We can’t say what a downturn would do to the China boom because it has only existed in a time of robust economic growth. It’s useless to look at what previous generations of Chinese students did because this phenomenon is so different.
There are past instances when top sending countries saw a precipitous drop in students – Iran after the Cultural Revolution and Japan post-Asian financial crisis – but neither of those countries were the enrollment behemoth that China is. That makes it hard to draw parallels, though, FWIW, I tried to find some lessons from Iran.
Finally, and I don’t think I hit this point hard enough in the Chronicle piece, what makes it so difficult for higher education to navigate the current political climate on China is the mixture of hyperbole and real concern.
What do I mean? With the travel ban, it was fairly easy for college leaders to assume the “right” position (at least from an internationalist perspective), arguing that the relatively small number of students and scholars from the affected countries contribute to U.S. higher education and aren’t a security risk. When it comes to China, there are some obvious laughers – anyone who has tried to find a Confucius Institute on a campus knows they’re probably not some spy hub.
But China is a real economic and national security rival to the United States. While higher ed officials express frustation that intelligence agencies haven’t laid out their specific concerns, many privately tell me that they think at least some may be founded. Robert Daly of the Woodrow Wilson Center points out that the anxiety isn’t strictly about top-secret research – there’s discomfort with the idea that American universities are training the next generation of Chinese to compete with the U.S. globally. As he put it:
“After all, during the Cold War, we weren’t training Soviet scientists in nuclear physics.”
That’s my take, but I’d be interested to hear what you think. My reporting is made stronger by all of you. Leave a comment, or tweet at me @karinfischer.
It hasn’t happened yet, but for a recent real-world example of how international education can get caught up in geopolitical fights, look no further than my typically mild-mannered home country, Canada. In August, Saudi Arabia ordered some 7,000 of its citizens at universities there to leave immediately after Canada’s foreign minister criticized the Saudi human rights record. The situation’s not perfectly analogous – almost all Saudi students are on government scholarships – but it’s a reminder that such cautions aren’t merely hypothetical.
The U.S. government has updated a travel advisory for Americans traveling to China, urging them to “exercise increased caution” and warning of the possibility of arbitrary detention. American colleges use the State Department guidance to set travel policies for students and faculty. With a 2 rating (out of 4), though, China’s in good company – the five most popular study-abroad destinations, all in Europe, are at the same advisory level.
That said, university risk managers I talk to are taking the revised China warnings into account. Notably, the University of California system has told its students in China not to use the popular messaging and social media app WeChat, cautioning that anything they share online could be used against them.
One last piece of China news: Researchers have found the tone of local media coverage of China improves by about 6 percent when there’s a Confucius Institute nearby. Interestingly, the reaction on Twitter seemed split between those alarmed by CI’s impact and those who thought it demonstrated that the Chinese were wasting a bunch of money.
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Around the Globe
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, is starting a campaign to push U.S. colleges to include protections for academic freedom and free expression in international partnerships and work abroad. I’ve got some thoughts about why it’s a big deal that this free speech heavyweight is getting into international education:
On the subject of academic freedom, check out this provocative blog post from Alex Usher about whether it should be thought of as a universal value in higher education around the globe.
Delays in permanent residency visas are causing U.S.-educated STEM Ph.D.'s from China and India – the two largest sending countries – to return home at higher rates, a new study finds.
The U.S. government shutdown may have been prompted by immigation issues (i.e., the Wall), but it’s having little impact on immigration services, including visa issuance. The reason: these services are funded through user fees, such as those on student-visa applications. That said, with the start of the new term, if your students experience trouble at consular offices or reentering the country, let me know.
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Catch me at the conference
Or, if you will be in San Francisco for the Association of International Education Administrators conference January 20-23, tell me your shutdown woes (and other global higher ed news) in person!
I’ll be moderating or speaking at several sessions throughout the meeting:
Students Speak: International Students’ Perspectives on International Education, Monday at 3:15 p.m. in Nob Hill C-D
Best Practices from Case Studies in Intercultural Competence, Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in (again!) Nob Hill C-D
A Shifting Landscape: A Roundtable on Trends in International Education, Wednesday at 11 a.m. in Salon 5-6
I’m especially excited for the students’ panel. Theirs is a voice too infrequently heard at professional conferences, and I think they have a lot insightful to say.
Can’t make any of the sessions? Look for me between sessions – if you see someone in hot pink, it’s a good chance it’s your girl. Of course, I’ll also be sharing my observations throughout the conference on Twitter and back here next week.
We talk a lot about global differences. But there’s one universal language, at least for small boys – superhero.
On the streets of Shanghai…
And my nephews in Maine…
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