Against Ambivalence: Why Immigration Policymakers Should Welcome Foreign Students

Why does the presence of foreign students still evoke periodic ambivalence in the countries to which they flock? Recent examples of this uneasiness are abundant. From Australia and the United States to France and the United Kingdom, universities’ desire to enroll foreign students’ – whether for their brainpower, the tuition revenues they bring, or both – coexists uneasily with immigration policies that too often thwart the desires of graduates who want to stay on and join the host country’s workforce.

The resulting tensions have sometimes led to policy flip-flops. Two years ago, Australia tightened visa rules significantly for students wishing to study at universities, vocational colleges, and language schools. The goal was to crack down on visa scams that were letting unsavory trade school operators essentially sell work permits to foreign students. But the ensuing drop in foreign student numbers (also attributable to the rise in the Australian dollar) led to alarm in a postsecondary sector heavily dependent on those students. Now a just-released review by a former government minister proposes relaxing many of the restrictions, particularly for universities, and the government is expected to implement the report’s recommendations soon.

Meantime, in France, stepped-up immigration restrictions introduced in recent months have made it harder for foreign students from outside the European Union to receive work permits after graduating. It seems that a national policy to increase the number of foreign students, which grew from 138,000 to 218,000 in the past decade, came into conflict with recent efforts to curtail immigration of all kinds, which hit foreign graduates first. That raised alarm among university officials, who are very much aware of the link between foreign study and post-graduation work opportunities. “You reduce the attractiveness of universities if you do this. [Students are] not attracted by universities if they have to go back home immediately afterwards,” said Conférence des Présidents d’Université (CPU) president Louis Vogel. French officials said this month that the restrictions would be eased. But amid reports of conflict between the interior minister and the minister for higher education and research, it seems unlikely that the camps will be easily reconciled.

Immigration restrictions also raise anxiety in universities when they’re directed at foreign researchers. When Britain’s then recently elected coalition government began implementing new visa restrictions last year, it soon became clear that proposed quotas on foreign academics would cause great distress to the nation’s universities. “Unless we are able to bring in world-leading researchers, the extraordinary international quality of U.K. research will plummet,” wrote Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, which represents British university leaders, in a Guardian column. “World-class research requires world-class people, and we simply can’t adopt a fortress Britain attitude.” Ultimately, some visa limitations on foreign researchers were relaxed, but tightened visa rules for overseas students continue to worry universities.

The United States faces the same problem. Notwithstanding the huge appeal of American universities as a destination for foreign students over the past half century, immigration restrictions make it hard for many talented graduates to stay on. That threatens to erode U.S. universities’ continued appeal – and to deprive the American economy of prized human capital. President Obama stressed the latter point six months ago in an immigration speech in El Paso. “Today, we provide students from around the world with visas to get engineering and computer science degrees at our top universities. But then our laws discourage them from using those skills to start a business or a new industry here in the United States.” This “makes no sense,” he concluded.

One can certainly make a case that more restrictive visa and regulatory policies are the best protection against fraud and abuse in international education, as Boston College’s Philip Altbach did in a blog post not long ago. After all, who could be against cracking down on visa scams, fly-by-night colleges, and shoddy academic standards? But this is not the whole story, of course. Restrictions on the ability of foreign students to stay on to work after graduation often carry with them a heavy undercurrent of domestic protectionism, and at times even xenophobia. Yet we have ample evidence of the importance of human capital to economic growth. For example, research by my employer, the Kauffman Foundation, has shown that immigrant entrepreneurs, many of them graduates of U.S. universities, have played a large role in high-growth Silicon Valley start-ups. That’s why so many advocates of U.S. policies that favor skilled immigration have called for issuing green cards offering permanent residency to foreign graduates in certain fields together with their diplomas.

It seems terribly shortsighted to err on the side of tightening study and work visas for foreign students, in the U.S. and elsewhere, given the significant benefits of greater openness. There are plenty of scams to be found in, say, online education or standardized testing. But we’d be foolish to cite those problems as justification for heavily restricting promising ed tech innovations or for junking test-based accountability measures. So yes, the study-work connection needs oversight in every country. As we’ve already seen, however, excessively restrictive immigration policies toward foreign students threaten not only revenues but academic excellence on campuses. They threaten something else that national policymakers should value, too: the presence of highly motivated and trained foreign graduates in workforces that would surely benefit from all the fresh talent they can get.

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