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Foreign STEM graduates vital to US economy

International students account for almost two thirds of graduate students in key science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in the US, however a slowdown in enrolments could be putting the economy at risk a new report shows.

International students account for 70% of all master's and PhD students in electrical engineering programmes

Findings by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) also show how international students provide cultural benefits to US institutions and are an inexpensive way to promote the US abroad. With the study the non-profit, non-partisan research organisation has put its weight behind pending legislation in the US congress that would streamline permanent residency for graduates in those fields.

“Reforms in congress that would make it easier for international students to come to America and remain if offered a job are likely to benefit the US economy and encourage future international students to study in America,” commented Stuart Anderson, executive director at NFAP.

“Reforms that make it easier for international students to come to America and remain if offered a job are likely to benefit the US economy”

International students in STEM courses have increased significantly over the past three decades, accounting for 70% of all master’s and PhD students in electrical engineering programmes versus 44% in 1982, and 63% of computer science students, up from 35%.

They also make up 60% of industrial engineering programmes and more than 50% of economics, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering and materials engineering courses. Furthermore, they are said to benefit their American peers culturally and boost US foreign policy by educating top leaders from countries around the world.

However, over the past eight years, the US has seen a steady decline in growth of international enrolments due to encroaching competition from English-speaking destinations with more welcoming visa policies. As international students undertake 51% of all research in the US, there are also growing concerns that the slowdown could affect the quality and reputation of research institutions.

“This is a real turning point potential, where the US has to make a decision about whether it’s going to make an investment in helping US universities maintain their position as the number one destination for international students and an investment in the long-term benefits for the entire country and economy,” said Julie Kent, director of communications and advancement at the Council of Graduate Schools.

Kent says there should be more investment in graduate education and research to support international students and echoes calls from the tech industry that green cards should be stapled to STEM graduate diplomas.

Over the past eight years, the US has seen a steady decline in growth figures for international enrolments due to encroaching competition

According to a survey conducted by the National Venture Capital Association, 40% of immigrant entrepreneurs in recent venture-funded companies first entered the country as international students. However Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, whose members include Microsoft, Apple and Panasonic, said “the challenge now is for start-ups”.

“Some graduate students want to start businesses but can’t. They’re being kicked out so they just go back to their native country and become our competition,” he said.

Legislation was passed in the US Senate last month that would allow permanent visas for foreign STEM graduates and increase caps on post-study work visas for highly skilled workers. The bill is now awaiting a vote in the House of Republicans but faces strong opposition from Republican leaders, who have proposed alternative immigration reform policies including the SKILLS Visa Act (HR 2131) which would allocate 55,000 green cards for STEM graduates.

Congress is expected to hash out an agreement after its five-week recess starting in August.

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