WASHINGTON -- How can colleges seize control of their international strategies at a time when international student enrollments are falling at many American colleges and when federal immigration policies and public attitudes may be working against institutions’ internationalization goals?
“We used to talk very clearly about this internationalization imperative” as if global involvement was an irresistible or unavoidable force, Kevin Kinser, head of the education policy studies department at Pennsylvania State University, said at an Inside Higher Ed-organized event, Global Higher Ed in Changing Times, Tuesday. “There are a lot of people who disagree with that assumption, that presumption.”
“I’m an optimist going through a very pessimistic phase right now,” Kinser continued. “I’m not sure the idea of internationalization resonates with as broad a population as I thought.”
One theme that emerged Tuesday was the growing divide between haves and have-nots as international student enrollments have fallen at some institutions and increased at others.
Peggy Blumenthal, senior counselor to the president at the Institute of International Education, presented data from the latest annual Open Doors report that found a 6.6 percent decline in new international students at American colleges in fall 2017.
A separate survey of about 500 colleges IIE conducted in fall 2018 with nine other higher education associations found a continuing 2 percent decline in international students at U.S. institutions. However, enrollment trends varied across institutions, with about half of colleges reporting declines and the other half reporting increases or flat international enrollments. Associate and master’s-level institutions, less selective institutions, and colleges in the Midwest reported the steepest declines, while research universities reported increases in international students.
The top three factors survey respondents cited for the declines were the visa application process or visa delays or denials (cited by 83 percent of respondents), the social and political environment in the U.S. (60 percent cited this), and competition from institutions in other countries (59 percent). The top three factors cited for increases were more active recruitment efforts (58 percent), growing reputation and visibility abroad (48 percent), and more active outreach to admitted students (47 percent).
Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president of global engagement and research for the online recruitment platform Studyportals, highlighted in his talk what he has characterized as three waves of international student mobility, with the third and current wave “triggered by the political climate we are in.”
“This couldn’t have come at a worse time,” Choudaha said, referencing stagnating demand from China, the scaling back of a massive Saudi government scholarship program and the price sensitivity of students from India. “This is the first time, actually, we can’t let international student recruitment be on autopilot riding on the wave of demand growth from China, Saudi Arabia or any other country. This is our time to seize control. It won’t happen by itself anymore.”
As far as recruitment solutions go, Choudaha proposed an acronym, HOPE, with the “H” standing for higher value institutions can offer students -- as in the case of Eastern Michigan University, which reduced tuition for international students to the in-state rate, the “O” standing for outreach, the “P” for partnerships with third-party providers and other entities, and the “E” for investments institutions make in improving the experience of international students so they will return to their home countries as solid “brand ambassadors” for the institution.
Jill Welch, deputy executive director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said she would add another "P" to the discussion -- the political. Advocates for international education have been deeply concerned by some of the visa and immigration policies pursued by the Trump administration, including changes to how “unlawful presence” is calculated for international students, new restrictions on the duration of visas for Chinese nationals studying for advanced degrees in certain high-tech fields and the travel ban, which continues to restrict entry to the U.S. for nationals of multiple Muslim-majority countries.
The Trump administration has also signaled its intent to at some point overhaul programs that let international students stay in the U.S. to work after graduation, and at one point reportedly considered a proposal to ban students from China from coming to the U.S. altogether.
“What we need to understand is perception is reality,” Welch said. “When this administration even floats an idea that would make us less [welcoming] to international students, other countries are able to highlight immediately their certainty and their policies, and it creates a ripple effect around the world about how the U.S. is viewed.”
While the U.S. has seen falling new international enrollments, other competitor countries -- including Canada -- are reporting significant growth. Anne-Marie Vaughan, the president of Loyalist College, an institution in Ontario about two hours outside Toronto, said the percentage of international students at her institution grew from 3 to 30 percent in three years, as the number of international students jumped from about 85 to 1,000. The growth has come primarily in students from India, many of whom already have degrees and are coming to do postgraduate diplomas with an eye toward staying to work in Canada. Vaughan said Loyalist has more applications from international students now -- 4,000 -- than the college has students.
Nor is Loyalist an outlier. "I don’t think there’s a single college within our province that hasn’t seen a pretty robust growth in international students over the past five years," Linda Franklin, the president and CEO of Colleges Ontario, said in a follow-up phone interview.
Franklin said one driving factor "is Canada simply has a great reputation for postsecondary education. The other one is that Canada is still seen as immigrant-friendly and our immigration policies actually welcome foreign students, who, if they complete education in a public postsecondary institution, have a relatively straightforward path to work permits." Franklin said two immigration policy changes in particular -- streamlining of the visa approval processes for Indian students, and changes to the Express Entry immigration system to give an advantage to graduates of Canadian higher education institutions when they apply for permanent residency -- have been key to driving the increases.
Tuesday’s event on global higher education in changing times did not focus solely on international student enrollment trends. College leaders speaking at the event highlighted their institutions' internationalization activities more broadly. Joseph Aoun, the president of Northeastern University -- which has the third-largest international enrollment of any university in the U.S. -- discussed Northeastern’s development of campuses in Toronto and Vancouver and its planned acquisition of the New College of the Humanities in London. Northeastern students go to countries around the world to complete internships through the university’s signature co-op program.
“The notion of cultural agility, the notion of global ease and global proficiency are important,” Aoun said. “We did surveys of employers -- employers are very interested in this aspect. They want students who are global, who have global experiences, not an academic touristic experience.”
For all the focus on the global, presidents also emphasized the importance of outreach to their local communities. "The community needs to understand why you exist," said Ahmad M. Hasnah, the president of Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar. "You need to find that your program, your research is really able to impact them. I think they need to feel that impact."
And while much of the event focused on the importance of internationalization, a panel discussion Tuesday afternoon highlighted the complexities of working in parts of the world where human rights are not respected.
Cornell University's labor college recently withdrew from a partnership with Renmin University of China over academic freedom concerns, and many colleges were prompted to re-evaluate their ties to Saudi Arabia after the killing of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey in a crime that the Central Intelligence Agency has determined was ordered by the Saudi crown prince. (One of those universities prompted to review its Saudi ties, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, subsequently issued a report recommending that the institute keep its Saudi relationships.)
Liz Reisberg, an independent consultant in higher education and research fellow at the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, has written for Inside Higher Ed's "WorldViews" blog, which she edits, about her choice to continue working on a project with the Saudi Ministry of Education after the killing of Khashoggi.
"The Saudi project has been difficult for me, and in the process of soul-searching, I really had to think about what internationalization is. As institutions we have to make a choice: Are we going to isolate ourselves, are we only going to collaborate and mix with countries that share our values -- and good luck finding those countries -- or are we going to try to understand different worldviews?" Reisberg asked during the panel session on human rights and international higher education.
Rowena Xiaoqing He, a scholar with the Institute for Advanced Study who has written about the experience of pro-democracy activists who were exiled from China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, said she wouldn't want to recommend that colleges cut off contact. But she said that administrators have a responsibility and that before they set up campuses in certain parts of the world they should "think twice and then ask, 'Can we make sure that we have the intellectual freedom?'"
They should ask, “Why are we doing this, what’s the point of us doing this?” He asked. And if they can't guarantee intellectual freedom, "we should think twice, because we are not helping our students and we are harming our universities in the long run."