The IIE Open Doors survey, which tracks changes that occurred from July 2019 to June 2020, is a snapshot of the pandemic’s early impact, capturing a decline that began in January 2020 and continued through the spring 2020 term and into early summer.
“Starting in January 2020, travel restrictions… disabled scholars from traveling to the US”
“We found for the most part that fall 2019 happened as planned, and that international scholars were able to travel to the United States,” said Mirka Martel, IIE’s head of Research, Evaluation and Learning.
“But starting in January 2020, travel restrictions, whether issued by the US or the scholars’ home countries, disabled scholars from traveling to the US and caused this decrease.”
In total, the number of international scholars in the US fell by 13,055 in the 2019/20 academic year, disrupting two decades of largely steady growth.
Prior to the pandemic, the most meaningful decline occurred in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the number of international scholars in the US fell 2% from 2000/01 to 2001/02.
The decline in scholars mapped to the early geographic spread of Covid-19. Regions initially hardest hit by the virus, such as Asia and Europe, saw the sharpest decline at 9% and 13% respectively.
China remains the top sender of scholars to the US, followed by India and South Korea, although the number of scholars traveling to the US from all three countries fell in the past academic year, recording declines that ranged from 10.6% (China), 4% (India) and 2.3% (South Korea).
Despite the travel restrictions, many scholars elected to stay in the US even after restrictions were introduced, Martel said.
“We did find that certain scholars elected to go home, but particularly once the travel restrictions came up right around the March timeframe, a lot of scholars elected to stay in the US. Institutions really worked with these scholars to support them.”
In summer 2020, IIE surveyed institutions on what factors they thought would have an impact on international scholars coming to the US. At that point, a majority pointed to factors like policy guidelines around travel and visas, and full or partial campus closures that would make research labs and libraries inaccessible.
A smaller but still significant number expressed concerns about future hiring and budgetary constraints.
Across institutions, 45% said that “freezing new scholar appointments or applications” and 36% said that “budget cuts or staff furloughs/layoffs that may affect international scholars” will be a factor in their ability to host international scholars in the future.
A number of institutions indicated that they began experiencing a freeze in new scholar appointments and applications in spring 2020, with implications for the 2020/21 academic year.
“We heard from institutions that their plans for fall 2019/20 were largely met, but sometime in the spring semester of 2020, they froze or completely halted new scholar appointments and applications,” Martel said.
“As a result, that pipeline will be disrupted.”
While the precipitous decline in international scholars far exceeds anything ever seen before, experts in the field are cautiously optimistic that the sector as a whole in the new political environment of the Biden administration may be in a position to rally behind internationalisation whenever restrictions are lifted.
That is because pandemic was not the only threat to international mobility in the US in past years, noted Rachel Banks, senior director of Public Policy & Legislative Strategy at NAFSA.
While it may have been uniquely and immediately disruptive, international mobility to the US was already showing some sign of strain before it struck.
“Numerous harmful federal policy changes adopted by the prior administration have caused severe damage to this country’s reputation as the premier destination for international students and scholars,” Banks said.
“America is still a country that provides opportunities and attracts the brightest students and scholars”
“But America is still a country that provides opportunities and attracts the brightest students and scholars from throughout the world,” she continued.
“Immigration and visa policies need to be well-crafted and implemented in order to help win back the confidence of international students and scholars. Under a Biden administration, there is potential to return to or create new policies that welcome international students and scholars.”
David Di Maria, associate vice provost for International Education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is “hopeful that post-pandemic we will see an increase in international mobility”.
“Problems like Covid-19 won’t be solved by any one country working in isolation, but rather require a collaborative effort,” he maintained.
“In the US, the Biden administration has prioritised reengagement with the international community and increased support for science. These two elements, combined with more favourable immigration policies, will inevitably help to grow international collaborations among scholars.”