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Mobility trends for US international students a “mixed picture”

One encouraging sign is the rising numbers of attendees at key conferences and events in the sector

The Alliance promotes the power of international exchange, spearheads advocacy efforts on behalf of members and offers a variety of professional development opportunities.

Executive director Mark Overmann led the discussion with guest speakers Maureen Manning, vice president of strategy and insight at The PIE, and Jill Welch, senior policy advisor at the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration and featured columnist for the “Jill on the Hill” policy update in The PIE News.

Regarding overall global trends in international student mobility, Manning addressed the topic from a historical global perspective, noting that regions such as the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and some European countries have long been popular destinations for international students, and still maintain significant appeal.

“However current trends in international student mobility are being increasingly influenced by factors such as changes in immigration policies, political climates and economic conditions,” Manning asserted.

She noted that the resultant impact of the pandemic is still being realised. Moreover, she said in regions such as China, “the lingering effect of the pandemic, coupled with geopolitical tensions, have complicated the rebound”.

“We still have fewer international students than we used to have”

In terms of future trends, Manning indicated that many stakeholders are paying close attention to Saudi Arabia as well as countries in the LATAM region as potential partnerships, collaborations and recruiting efforts in those areas proliferate.

In addressing mobility trends for students studying in the US, Welch referred to it as a “mixed picture”.

“When you look at the data in the last Open Doors survey, which captured part of the recovery, you see some increases. But we still have fewer international students than we used to have,” Welch said, adding that this data predates the pandemic.

A positive trend she highlighted is that many university presidents maintained their commitment to international education during and after the pandemic, noting the increase in membership of the Presidents’ Alliance specifically.

Other encouraging signs mentioned were rising numbers of attendees at key conferences and events in the sector, the joint statement of principles and the recent addition of international education to the export strategy.

The concept of a national international education strategy was woven throughout the conversation as the speakers referenced countries that have successfully orchestrated strategies, as well as the challenges of not having a coordinated effort at the federal level.

“This has been on the agenda for a variety of international education and exchange organisations but is very difficult,” said Overmann.

And while he said he often hears stakeholders call for a national strategy based on those of other countries, he questioned the appropriateness of comparisons as the political context in the US greatly differs to those of many of its competitors.

Trends in visa denials was also discussed in depth during the conversation, in particular, those in the sub-Saharan Africa region.

Manning argued that reasons behind these high denial rates have been a subject of much debate and speculation. She noted that potential factors contributing to high denial rates include concerns related to visa overstays, which is when students remain in the US beyond the duration of their authorised stay.

She noted that many students from sub-Saharan Africa who have spoken with The PIE about their visa denials believed the result was due to concerns over their intention to return home after completing their studies.

Welch added that in many areas of the global south, visa denials have a true human impact, and while previously studied more anecdotally, a new report from Presidents’ Alliance and Shorelight has tackled the issue from a more data-driven approach.

Manning said, “While visa decisions are ultimately made by individual consular officers, and each case is assessed on its individual merits, broader political contexts may influence decisions or perceptions about those decisions.”

Overmann said this idea tracks with experiences certain Alliance members are having with J-1 visa issuance in countries such as Turkey and the Dominican Republic, among others. “But details and data are scarce, which makes it very hard to address the issue.”

Welch underscored that the term “overstay” is sometimes misused synonymously with “non-return”. As such, she said overstay rates are inflated and that there is not an effective way to measure non-returns.

Overmann agreed, noting that while the bureau of consular affairs sets broad policy, “individual posts are given much discretion and latitude for their decisions, which makes it very difficult for advocates to drive systemic change to visa issuance trends”.

“Now we have a much more polarised Congress”

“Our immigration system is outdated and needs to be modernised, and there is broad bipartisan agreement on that,” Welch added.

“But now we have a much more polarised Congress. What that means for us is that we need to educate our congressional delegations. We need to articulate what the problem is and what we need to see.”

One suggestion Welch offered was that the number of green cards be expanded, even beyond STEM, noting that it is not just STEM fields that drive the economy. Just this week, NAFSA also called for the US to provide a “direct path” to green cards for international graduates that have employers willing to sponsor them.

Regardless of the conditions advocated for, however, she emphasised the importance of joining together in alliances in addressing immigration reform. “If you are not at the table, you’re on the menu,” she cautioned.

In closing, panellists agreed that it is critical to continually evaluate immigration policies and consider the global competition for international students. And that by staying responsive to student needs and global trends, the US can maintain its position as a top choice for international education.

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