Expect Federal Oversight of International Programs to Increase, Speakers Say

May 30, 2012

International educators, someone is watching, and that someone just might be the federal government.

That's a message coming out of the annual meeting of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, held here this week. This year's meeting comes on the heels of twin policy announcements, from the Departments of State and Homeland Security, dealing with increased oversight of foreign students, scholars, and teachers.

Anticipate more of the same, said speakers at several sessions on Wednesday. "Expect more scrutiny," said Carl A. Herrin, who, until recently, advised colleges on their international activities. (Mr. Herrin now is an assistant to the president of Worcester State University.)

One of the actions much buzzed about in the conference hallways is an unexpected bulletin recently sent by Homeland Security to colleges and English-language schools that seems to suggest that university-run language programs may have to apply for separate specialized accreditation or lose their ability to enroll students from abroad.

In the other instance, the State Department told universities that host Confucius Institutes they, too, might have to obtain separate accreditation for the Chinese language and cultural centers and that, because of visa problems, some 600 schoolteachers affiliated with the institutes would have to leave the country within weeks. After criticism on campuses and from the Chinese government, the department largely reversed itself, backing off the accreditation provision entirely and telling the teachers they would be allowed to stay.

While there appears to be some resolution of the Confucius Institute issue, Mr. Herrin and his fellow speakers emphasized that colleges should expect federal agencies to continue to exercise greater oversight of their programs for foreign students and scholars.

"We have seen new agency concerns about compliance," said David Fosnocht, director of immigration practice resources for Nafsa.

One reason could be several high-profile cases of abuse of the visa system, including a raid on and the subsequent closure of Tri-Valley University, a California institution accused of acting as a visa mill, admitting Indian students to work, not attend classes.

Tri-Valley was an "embarrassment" to the Student Exchange Visitor Program, the Homeland Security agency that oversees the student-visa system, Mr. Fosnocht said. It may have led the department to double down on what he called "compliance assurance," ranging from the policy guidance on English-language institutes to an increase in site visits by agency reviewers and greater scrutiny of what had previously been routine paperwork.

The Tri-Valley case was related to student-visa fraud, but there also has been more attention paid to exchange visas, which allow nonimmigrant visitors to work or take part in cultural programs, after foreign students on a summer work-study program complained about conditions at a factory run by a subcontractor to Hershey, the candy company. The Confucius Institute teachers also were in the country on the exchange visas, known as J visas.

Michael McCarry, executive director of the Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, said it is uncertain what caused the State Department to issue the policy directive on Confucius Institutes. (State Department officials have said it was part of routine oversight.)

However, Mr. McCarry said the department has been clear that it will be giving exchange visas greater review, "going category by category."

The State Department "has come under serious criticism" after the Hershey incident, he said.

And that greater scrutiny could ultimately extend to other types of nonimmigrant visas. "Academic programs are not on the frontline, but they'll get there eventually," Mr. McCarry said.

But Mr. Herrin said there could be another, more positive reason for the increased attention—the budget for academic and cultural exchanges sponsored by the State Department has grown significantly in recent years. This year, President Obama proposed spending nearly $587-million on the exchange programs.

"When the budget for your program crosses the half-billion-dollar mark, more scrutiny isn't much of a surprise," Mr. Herrin said.


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