Coronavirus pandemic

Perils of shutting Chinese students out of US varsities

Institutions would face massive hit to funds as well as academic disadvantages: Experts

Her friends found the bed unmade, an expensive Gucci handbag lying next to it. There was food in the fridge. Pictures of her boyfriend were clipped above her small worktable in the tiny studio, lined with fairy lights on a cute display.

It was as if the 20-year-old George Washington University student from Thailand had simply walked out of her apartment and disappeared. And in a sense, she had.

The young Thai Chinese had travelled back home to Bangkok when her parents decided that with the pandemic, it was probably safer to stay home. The lease was cancelled and friends were roped in to send some things back to her - the bag and pictures topped the list - before handing the flat back to the owner.

Across the US, variations of this theme have become common. And colleges and universities, which depend on full-fee paying foreigners for a significant chunk of their revenue, are debating their options should those students stop coming.

With classes moving online, questions have arisen about the value of the experience for overseas students, complicating matters further for higher education institutions, which can cost well over US$70,000 (S$99,000) a year.

There has been a flurry of lawsuits against colleges by undergraduates demanding partial tuition, room-and-board and fee refunds after they shut down. This month, American University student Maaz Qureshi filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of himself and his classmates, arguing that while closing the campus during the pandemic was the right decision, it deprived them of the "benefits of in-person instruction, access to campus facilities, student activities and other benefits and services in exchange for which they had already paid in fees and tuition".

According to the 2019 Open Doors report on International Educational Exchange, there were 1.09 million international students in the US in the 2018/19 academic year, contributing US$44.7 billion to the economy in 2018.

Chinese students accounted for roughly 34 per cent of the total, contributing more than any other foreign student group. But the pandemic is only the latest blow to the dimming prospects of foreign students in America - especially those from China.

Already, in the summer last year, student counsellors and parents in China were having second thoughts about students pursuing higher education opportunities in America, as China-US relations bumped along in the middle of a high-pitched trade war and rising anti-Chinese sentiment in the US.

Last October, Amherst College associate dean of admission and coordinator of international recruitment Wan Xiaofeng wrote in the Inside Higher Ed journal about the results of a survey of 54 school-based college counsellors in China.

  • 1.09m

    Number of international students in the US in the 2018/19 academic year, contributing  US$44.7 billion (S$63 billion) to the economy in 2018.

    34%

    Percentage of Chinese students out of the total international student population, contributing more than any other foreign student group.

About 85 per cent indicated that the biggest concern of Chinese parents was President Donald Trump's unpredictable policies towards Chinese students.

"Seventy-eight per cent pointed to safety; 65 per cent to the uncertainty of remaining in the US for a work experience after graduation; and another 65 per cent indicated fear of visa denial or deportation after arrival," Mr Wan wrote.

Eighty-seven per cent of high school college counsellors in China reported that students and parents were reconsidering plans for study in the US, he added.

The US had by then started cancelling or denying visas to Chinese students. In April last year, the US began extra screening of students and shortened the length of visas issued in aviation, robotics and advanced manufacturing from a maximum of five years to one year.

National Public Radio reported: "Particularly sensitive are disciplines that coincide with China's 'Made in China 2025' plan, a state initiative to become the global leader in fields like robotics, semiconductors and aviation."

Last month's order suspending the issuance of green cards has left international students at US colleges and universities even more uncertain. The apprehension deepened when Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf indicated that optional practical training (OPT) visas were the administration's next target. The OPT visa allows a student to work for a while after graduating and is considered to be a pathway to US residency.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, China hawks are hollering for more restrictions. Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton is lobbying for an outright ban on Chinese students studying in technical fields in America.

While this may inconvenience Chinese students, it is colleges and universities and the US as a whole that will experience short-and long-term negative consequences.

Dr James Carafano, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told The Straits Times: "I do think everybody wants to get on the 'I'm tough on China, so give me something to be tough on China' bandwagon, but they're not actually thinking very strategically. Let's say you want to ban Chinese students in the United States. Okay, great. It's some... enormous amount of money. What are you going to do about that?"

Dr Glenn Altschuler, professor of American Studies at Cornell University, told ST that "many institutions which depend entirely or almost entirely on tuition (fees) would perhaps even become insolvent if these students don't come".

"Another concern is that in many fields, doctoral students from other countries dominate the field... and... if they were not to come, this has academic consequences because many of them are superb students."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2020, with the headline 'Perils of shutting Chinese students out of US varsities'. Print Edition | Subscribe