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What a new American President means for International Education

23 November 2020

As world leaders send their congratulations to the American President-Elect Joe Biden, people in the US and beyond have begun to wonder what this change might mean for them. One group who are particularly interested in how the country might change are students considering travelling for their education to the US, which has been a dream for many millions like them over the years.

According to The United Nations, America is still the most popular destination for international students globally, attracting nearly 1 million foreign students to the country every year. However, American universities know they cannot be complacent and assume that talented students will always choose the United States. Policies such as the travel ban from some majority Muslim countries, and challenges in acquiring visas for a period of employment after graduation, have persuaded some who previously chose American institutions to seriously consider the UK, Canada or Australia.

Indeed, the prestigious Institute of International Education reported this year that the number of international undergraduate students declined by 2.9% in the 2019-2020 academic year prior to COVID-19, with overall newly enrolled international students declining for the fourth consecutive year and total enrolled international students returning to pre-2016/17 figures. Many have seen this decline as directly related to the policies of the Trump administration.

The next four years, though, offer the potential for a much more supportive environment for students from a President-Elect who has repeatedly spoken over the years of his commitment to international education. This issue also strikes close to home for his chosen Vice-President, Kamala Harris, whose own parents Shyamala and Donald first came to America as international students from India and Jamaica, before taking up their graduate professions as a biomedical scientist and an engineer respectively.

Therefore, it is a relief to many that the value of higher education and its power to change lives is of central importance to the incoming leadership. Organizations such as NAFSA, the American Association for International Education, are hopeful that 2021 and a Biden-Harris administration will herald a new chapter for American international education after a challenging four years, in which the organization has repeatedly called for more welcoming policies and rhetoric towards international students and their home nations.

“We are eager to work with the Biden-Harris administration as President-elect Biden has pledged to directly address many of these issues,” stated NAFSA CEO Esther Brimmer, adding that “The past four years have been one of the most challenging periods in the history of our field, during which international educators have shown unparalleled strength and resilience.”

One of the first actions expected of the White House after January 2021 is an Executive Order to lift the travel ban, but other actions are also likely to make a difference. A commitment to stronger international cooperation and a resolve to address the Coronavirus pandemic through tighter public health measures will be reassuring to those who have watched American policy over the last four years with concern.

In the end though, it is practical policy, which will make a difference. Canada has long welcomed international students and the UK, under Boris Johnson’s leadership, has moved away from Prime-Minister Teresa May’s position to signal a welcome to international students, by reintroducing a period of automatic right to post-study work after graduation. The government is now going further by instigating a cross-department International Education Strategy, drawing on the views of universities and international students themselves, with further sympathetic policy announcements expected.

In Australia, universities are urging the Morrison government to match these policies with an attractive offer to international students who bring so much to Australian higher education and the economy. In that sense, America may find itself in a bidding war for the attentions of the world’s most important asset, its talented young people.

Which is why America will need to positively communicate its numerous strengths to a world, which has watched sometimes bewildered at the news from the United States in recent years. The Presidents’ Alliance for Higher Education and Immigration, has put forward a series of proposals for the new administration’s first 100 days to welcome international students, including implementing the existing International Education Strategy, addressing visa barriers to study and legislating for greater online enrollment flexibility.

As an international education professional, with responsibility for students who chose to study in the US, my fervent hope is that, even in spite of the many challenges awaiting a new President faced with overcoming a global pandemic and its impacts on the economy, education and global cooperation will be at the heart of a new policy commitment to ‘build back better.’ American universities and local communities have always welcomed international students, and my company Study Group has joined them in proudly saying ‘You Are Welcome Here’ to young people who travel from across the globe, making deep connections and friendships in the process.

This is a heritage it is time to rediscover and act upon. America has every reason to be proud of its reputation, not just as a Land of Liberty, but also as a Place of Learning. For those students who are determined to widen their horizons and courageous enough to travel to its many welcoming excellent universities, America will remain the Home of the Brave.


Josh Rubin is Study Group’s Vice-President for Higher Education in North America.

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