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Jenny J. Lee, University of Arizona, US

The SEVP guidance banning international students from full online studies in the US was labelled “nothing short of cruel”, but following an outcry from the higher education community, the Trump administration has since rescinded the policy. The rallying support for international students in the country was as unexpected as the guidance itself, Jenny J. Lee, professor at the University of Arizona‘s Center for the Study of Higher Education told The PIE News, as she reflected on the past 10 days.


"TNE is the next direction"

The PIE: It’s been quite a week for the international student sector…

Jenny J. Lee: It feels surreal because the ICE rule was announced so unexpectedly, then there was so much momentum to quickly mobilise and now it’s over. I don’t know if anyone really believed that the Trump administration would back down completely, at least this soon. We were anticipating some kind of compromise or at least some scaling back. But the fact that they rescinded completely in just over a week is still a bit of a shock, albeit a very positive one.

“I anticipate there will be more attacks on international higher education in some form”

Still, this administration will continue to limit the ways that US higher education extends itself internationally.

I anticipate there will be more attacks on international higher education in some form. On the same day the ICE rule was eliminated, it was announced that the Fulbright program will no longer involve China and Hong Kong.

The PIE: We’ve had the Muslim ban as well as bans for some African countries, but where do you see that risk? Is the administration looking at mainly trying to target China? 

JJL: China is now the new target. I have not yet seen much focus on other countries or regions since the travel bans against Muslim majority countries.

Over the past two years especially, there has been considerable attention on Chinese scientists in particular. We’ve also seen scrutiny on Confucius centres and China’s Thousand Talents Plan program, as well as a series of attempts to limit Chinese nationals from coming to the US.

There are plans to cancel visas for students with ties to the Chinese military and just announced on Wednesday, considerations of a travel ban on Chinese Communist Party Members.

The PIE: That happened just this past week – have you ever seen anything like that in your career? 

JJL: No, not ever. I’ve been studying international students for about 15 years now. Across the span, international higher education has been a bit marginalised, especially in relation to US higher education or domestic higher education. So it’s interesting to see over the years how it’s become more and more central to higher education missions and strategies.

“The biggest surprise and lasting takeaway was how the general public denounced it”

While international higher education has threatened by this administration before, what was especially unusual was that this past ICE move was so bold, potentially affecting over one million students.

Then the fact that hundreds of association, business, and university leaders, members of Congress–from both Republicans and Democrats, US citizens rallied together in support of international students blew me away, quite frankly.

I have not ever seen such an attack on international higher education at this scale, but I’ve never seen such public resistance to that attack either. So on both sides, it was quite unexpected.

The PIE: That the positive side to it.

JJL: While there was some damage to international higher education as a result of the ICE policy, I remain optimistic, especially to have seen so many citizens in particular rally together in support of internationals.

The biggest surprise and lasting takeaway – more than the Trump administration’s anti-immigration proposal and policy – was how the general public denounced it.

As a result, I’m actually hopeful that international education will not only continue, but thrive despite governmental interventions to limit its activities.

The PIE: On the other hand, some may suggest that while there’s been a lot of support, students might just go somewhere seen as more welcoming to them.

JJL: My sense, though, is that international students do not necessarily feel that the US is entirely unwelcoming or their universities aren’t welcoming. I think that they’re able to separate that public opinion from the motivations of the current administration, which may be very temporary anyways. So I believe that is one of the reasons they continue to come.

Yes, the numbers have slightly declined, but overall, the US is a very favourable destination, even despite its current leadership. And international students are smart enough to separate the two and also that there is so much support at their universities.

Hopefully through these recent actions—court filings and public statements, they can see that support is overwhelming. So maybe we will encourage students, not just to stay, but for new students to come.

The PIE: And then not forgetting that the US does have some of the best institutions in the world.

JJL: So we know that the best and brightest can go anywhere in the world. And they do look at global rankings. So between the US and the UK, there are reasons that these are the top, most favourite places.

They can be quite xenophobic countries, but they also still tend to bring in a lot of internationals. And that flow has continued even despite some of the social and political challenges.

The PIE: It feels like a lot is riding on November and seeing what’s going to happen in the election.

JJL: I was wrong at that last election, but we’ve continually been surprised. It’s hard to make solid plans and know for sure what will happen. We remain optimistic of course.

The PIE: Beyond this, how do you see that international education rebuild in the US post Covid-19? Do you think there’s going to be big changes? 

JJL: Yeah, for sure. Not just in the US but globally, international travel will not just suddenly pick up. Your organisation and numerous others have quoted people who’ve said that this is actually going to take three to five years or more.

“Not just in the US but globally, international travel will not just suddenly pick up”

In the meantime, institutions or universities would be smart to look more into transnational education alternatives. We know that universities can pivot very quickly to online using distance learning as an example. We know the technology is available.

We have yet to see if universities want to fully harness it, as opposed to the more traditional way of expecting students to cross borders.

The PIE: It is a highly risky move right now to be so dependent on the physical mobility of students.

JJL: TNE is the next direction. The difference, though, is that the physical mobility of students has been passive income. We really don’t need to change much. The student has to put in all the effort to come to our universities, but universities really don’t have to do much to cater to them. We just hope they’ll integrate.

The difference with TNE is that there will have to be some more investment. Obviously institutions, as the global economy, are struggling financially as a result of Covid-19 so there’s certainly less funds to take on these kinds of new initiatives.

TNE would definitely require some funds that may not be readily available, but it would be a smart investment in the long term, knowing that physical mobility may be at least changed in the medium term.

The PIE: How do you see that form of TNE provision? You see that over overseas campuses are quite financially risky for institutions to start. 

JJL: At my institution, for example, we’re doing something called microcampuses, which is program by program. So through this overseas partnership, the US degree would result in a dual degree with the host university.

“Dual degrees and joint degrees with US degrees are becoming increasingly valuable”

The benefit is that students are able to stay at home but still receive an international degree without having to leave the country. And that is a way for them to receive the US education that they’re seeking, but without the financial costs, as well as many of the educational benefits that are associated with moving to another country.

So there’s tremendous promise in that model.

The PIE: What other trends are you seeing?

JJL: In general, dual degrees and joint degrees with US degrees are becoming increasingly valuable because we’re also seeing that international students are realising that there’s still value in their own domestic degree.

So before we had students from China or South Korea who were leaving to seek better opportunities elsewhere, when there’s actually increasingly great opportunities at home. And in many ways, this is a way for them to keep their social networks, but also to find employment where their employers do value that domestic degree.

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