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Immigration rhetoric ‘watched closely’ in bumper election year

Political debates around immigration and negative rhetoric towards minority groups will be closely observed around the globe, including by potential international students, warn policymakers, as the world faces a bumper election year.

Door with polling station sign on front.Photo: Unsplash.

It is the policies that come after an election that can determine changes to student flows

2024 is set to be a record year for voting, with over half of the world’s population living in countries scheduled to hold federal and local elections. Among those expected to go to the polls are key student source markets (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan) and leading international student destinations (US, UK). 

Elections can have both short- and long-term implications for the flow of international students. Currency fluctuations, for example, around voting time can leave students struggling to pay their deposits and tuition fees, while unexpected policy changes enacted by new administrations can derail their entire plans. 

The PIE News spoke to policy groups and international student advocates about how far election years change student numbers, if they expect political upheaval to influence students’ mindsets and what they’re looking out for in the upcoming elections. 

“2024 is set to be a big year for international education on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Diana Beech, CEO at London Higher, with immigration “high on the political agenda”. The approach to this in both countries is sure to be “covered widely around the world”, she said. 

“Given some of the negative rhetoric about legal immigration already emerging here in the UK, it is no surprise that prospective students are starting to question whether they would be welcomed in the country.”

Fatima Sanz, senior policy manager at US-based World Education Services, added that negative rhetoric towards certain groups can influence the safety of the people in those communities – and safety is a key deciding factor for students when choosing where to study. 

“2024 is set to be a big year for international education”

“Across multiple administrations that have been in place since our founding in 1974, we’ve seen that any increase in xenophobic and negative rhetoric that affects minoritised and racialised groups may also negatively impact international students as well,” she said.

“We seek to create a counter-narrative and back it with effective advocacy and programming.”

Beech and Sanz said the institutions they work with on both sides of the pond have been proactively trying to reassure students that they are welcome through direct communication and campaigns. 

Jill Allen Murray, deputy executive director of public policy at NAFSA, added that international students and their families “desire certainty when deciding where to pursue their higher education goals, and the [US] election will occur at a time when students are deciding where to apply”.

But Jazreel Goh, director Malaysia and East Asia Insights at the British Council, said the impact of elections on students’ mindsets shouldn’t be overstated.

“In general, students do spend quite a long time preparing to study abroad, and the election period doesn’t make a major difference to that as far as I’m aware,” she said. “We are not seeing any apprehensions or hesitations due to elections.”

It is the policies that come after an election that can determine changes to student flows, she said. 

Manisha Zaveri, joint managing director of Indian agency Career Mosaic, agreed that future policy changes will be the key to student choices. 

“The attractiveness of a study destination is shaped not just by the availability of educational funding and scholarships but also by factors like immigration policies, opportunities for work after study and the extent to which a country is committed to investing in its education system,” she said. 

“We advise students to focus on leveraging current favourable policies rather than speculating on future changes. It’s vital for students to avoid making hasty decisions based on panic or rhetoric. Making informed decisions based on accurate, current information is essential in this process.”

Groups working with international students will be gunning to have their voices heard throughout the election process. In the UK, Beech said London Higher will be focusing on protecting the Graduate Route, which the current government recently announced would be reviewed, and enhancing the Turing Scheme

In the US, WES, as part of the US for Success Coalition, will continue to advocate for “a timely and transparent visa adjudication process” for international students and the sustainability and growth of programs and policies that give international students practical work experience, including career practical training (CPT) and optional practical training (OPT). 

“We know that a change in administration may lead to policy and policy guidance changes that could alter opportunities for international students to utilise existing programs,” said Sanz.

Allen Murray added, “NAFSA will continue to work closely with its partners, members and advocates to push for a national strategy on international education to enable a greater and more diverse population of international students to study and work in the US.”

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