Fear of foreigners shunning US universities

Harvard University is one of many American universities rattled by United States President Donald Trump's two executive orders banning citizens from up to seven countries with mostly Muslim populations from entering the US for up to 90 days.

On her first trip to Singapore earlier this week for a gathering of more than 400 Harvard alumni from as far as Russia, Harvard's president Drew Faust told The Straits Times that these travel bans were "devastating" not only to many international students and scholars, but also to the very idea of a university.

Noting that such "interruptions and impediments" were "very troubling", she said: "I signed petitions along with other presidents to explain why these measures are so devastating to what universities are meant to be, and how they operate.

"But I worry also not just about the particular countries named; I worry about the broader message this sends of unwelcomeness to individuals, be they on campus for days, weeks or years."

Universities, she stressed, were "fuelled by talent" and that "talent comes in so many forms from so many places".

A day after Mr Trump's second executive order, Professor Faust said, Harvard filed an amicus curiae, or friend-of- the-court brief, which is a legal document to advise and support a court in New York in a case concerning the travel bans.

While Harvard had not yet seen any drop in international students enrolling with it, Prof Faust noted that other universities were beginning to see signs of that.

She said: "This is the season when we send out our acceptances, so we don't know yet. But there's been evidence from other American universities that there has been a diminution of interest in coming to the US."

Prof Faust declined to name these universities. But Time magazine's website Time.com reported on March 15 that the University of Washington, which has the 10th highest number of foreign students in the US, had seen a drop, while private university Adelphi in Long Island was very worried that enrolment might drop.

The report cautioned, however, that US universities would know for sure if enrolment had dropped after the executive orders only when fresh international students arrive in the US in August.

The same report noted two separate surveys that respectively showed a drop in such enrolment and declining interest in studying in the US respectively:

•A survey of 250 American tertiary institutions, released on March 13 by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admission Officers, and the Institute of International Education, showed a drop of 39 per cent in foreign student enrolment for the 2017-2018 academic year.

•A survey by higher education consultancy Royall & Co found that one-third of all foreign students polled, who were mostly from the Middle East, North Africa and Canada, were now put off studying in the US. Sixty-nine per cent among them cited the Trump administration as the reason for not wanting to study in the US.

The report added that foreign students contributed US$36 billion (S$49 billion) to the US economy - of which US$500 million was from the six mostly Muslim countries.

Prof Faust stressed: "Let me say to your readers: You are welcome at Harvard and we want you to come. You are necessary to our community and we hope our community will prove supportive and important to many people from all around the globe.

"When we bring people who have had very different experiences, it extends all of our imaginations."

For an idea of how Harvard welcomes its admitted foreign students, check out a video by its internationally diverse T.H. Chan School of Public Health at https://youtu.be/KXss8hnBO4c

Cheong Suk-Wai

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2017, with the headline 'Fear of foreigners shunning US universities'. Print Edition | Subscribe