Committee Considers Foreign S&E Students at U.S. Universities

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Publication date: 
14 October 2004

Tighter visa restrictions in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks may not be the only, or even the major, deterrent to foreign students and scholars considering studying or working in the U.S. This was one of the main points to come out of an October 11-12 meeting of the National Academies' Committee on Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States. Several invited speakers emphasized how more aggressive advertising and recruitment efforts by other countries could be attracting increasing numbers of foreign science and engineering (S&E) students to institutions outside of the U.S. Speakers also commented that state and institutional budget cuts in the U.S. may have resulted in fewer sources of financial support for foreign graduate students and postdocs, and that in many countries, the U.S. may be viewed as less welcoming than in the past. An official from the State Department told the committee that the processing of student visa applications had "turned the corner," with backlogs reduced and processing time down significantly.

There is a "growing interest" in attracting non-European students and researchers to Europe, stated Mary Kavanagh, Counselor for Science, Technology and Education for the European Union (EU). She informed committee members that, in support of the EU's goal to become "the most competitive knowledge-based economy" by the year 2010, Europe is placing "great emphasis" on facilitating the training and mobility of graduate students, postdocs, and researchers, both within Europe and beyond. The Union is urging all member countries to invest 3.0 percent of GDP in R&D by 2010, and recently, under the Marie Curie program, significantly increased funding for a broad range of grants, awards, fellowships, training programs and conferences for students and researchers that enable movement within Europe and abroad. "We consider mobility of researchers fundamental" to good science, she said. Most of the programs are advertised in, and open to applicants from, non-member countries, and some funds are aimed specifically at bringing non-European researchers to EU countries for several years. Kavanagh also described the Bologna Process to ensure that degrees from different countries are comparable and credits transferrable; a total of 40 countries are currently participating in this process, although the U.S. is not.

Why are numbers of foreign undergraduates in the U.S. increasing, while the numbers of foreign graduate students involved in research seem to be declining? asked Fazal Rivzi, Professor of Education Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He discounted 9/11 and tightened visa restrictions as major factors, and instead attributed the trends to the drying up of state and institutional sources of graduate student funding, and heavier recruitment from outside the U.S. At the same time, he said, some U.S. community colleges and four-year institutions are advertising more broadly, perhaps contributing to the increases in foreign undergraduates.

National Science Board (NSB) member George Langford of Dartmouth College briefed the committee on an August 2003 NSB report on the Science and Engineering Workforce (see The report, he said, warned that the U.S. "can't continue to rely on large numbers of [international] graduate students to provide the talent in this country." The Board proposed a number of strategies to attract more domestic students to S&E fields, including adequate stipend levels, broader graduate education options, and consistent federal funding for S&E doctoral programs. Greater demand and better salaries are what will attract domestic students, one committee member said, remarking that U.S. companies "want more American students but at cheaper prices." A second committee member noted that the number of U.S. students pursuing graduate work in S&E increases when the business cycle is in a downturn and other job options are scarce. The discussion continued with another committee member stating that "we can create a reliable flow of foreign students [to the U.S.] if we want to," with the right incentives, and another asking, if the U.S. tries to maintain the number of foreign S&E graduate students and at the same time increase the number of American students, will there be enough jobs to support them all? Langford was asked whether the Board had examined how mechanisms for funding research in this country might discourage American students from pursuing S&E (such as research faculty having little time for teaching, possibly leading to larger undergraduate class sizes in science fields). Langford said the Board had not addressed that in detail, but has asked NSF to set up a workshop to look at such issues.

Speaking on the second day of the meeting, Janice Jacobs, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Visa Affairs at the State Department, reported "significant progress" in the processing of visa applications, and agreed that "it is important to also look at other things affecting students' decisions to come to the U.S." She, too, stated that "the market for international students, especially in S&E fields, is becoming more competitive globally," and that budget cuts may have undermined some U.S. sources of financial support. In addition, she acknowledged that, "in many parts of the world, the U.S. is seen as a less welcoming place" in recent years.

In describing the progress made in processing visas, Jacobs said that for applications requiring a visa mantis clearance "to guard against the transfer of sensitive technologies," a backlog of several thousand applications was cleared in July, and the average processing time has been reduced to 22 days, down from 75 days a year ago. The number of clearances denied is "very small," she added. The State Department, she said, is taking steps to ensure that all consular officers have the latest guidance on what information to collect and which applications should be sent to Washington for review. She also said that ambassadors and consular officers were seeking ways to counter impressions of the U.S. as unwelcoming, including op-eds and columns in the local press and speeches at local events and institutions, but she said the department had not conducted any scientific studies on changing attitudes to the U.S. among potential students.

Jacobs was asked about the requirement that students prove they do not intend to immigrate to the U.S. in order to obtain a visa, and whether the State Department would reconsider that provision. She replied that in reality, the number of students from countries like China who actually return to their home country is quite low, but that the new SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) program will enable consular officers to verify whether student applicants have actually been accepted at a U.S. institution. As for changing or eliminating the non-immigration provision, she said the decision would be up to Congress. Although the visa process continues to be under increased scrutiny on Capitol Hill, she said, "some [Members of Congress] would like us to be stricter; others would like us to ease up." Although she thought the intelligence reforms now in Congress might have some impact on visa processing, she was not aware of any pending legislation that she considered "worrisome."

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