How international students became a political issue

Not long after the attack on Ukraine began, a U.S. congressmen went on cable news to call for swift action to punish Russia. Among the penalties proposed by Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat: “Kick out” all Russian students studying at American colleges.

Swalwell’s idea to expel Russian students exploded on social media. Many people condemned it as discriminatory. But others, including another Democratic lawmaker, rallied around the proposal. “Send them packing NOW!” one user wrote in a tweet.

The Biden administration hasn’t followed up, even as it has imposed other diplomatic and economic sanctions on Russia and its government. Yet, Swalwell’s idea and its resonance with parts of the public could signal something potentially troubling for higher education: a new willingness to see international students, or at least some of them, through a political lens.

Typically, American attitudes toward international students have been warm. Eight in 10 people surveyed by the Pew Research Center last year said it was good for American colleges to enroll students from overseas.

To the extent that foreign students have been historically viewed as political actors, it was often as an instrument to spread American ideals abroad. In 1955 President Dwight D. Eisenhower told a group of international students visiting the White House that he hoped they would “promote the kind of understanding that you have gathered in the past year, that you will help to spread in your own countries when you go home.” (You can listen to archival footage in a joint Chronicle/APM Reports documentary on international students in America.)

That’s not to say that international students weren’t sometimes caught up in national-security concerns. I spoke with Ryan M. Allen and Krishna Bista, authors of a recent paper on surveillance of international students and scholars in the United States. There was some “Cold War distrust” of students from the Soviet Union or other Communist-governed countries as potential spies, Allen, an assistant professor of practice at Chapman University, said.

After protesters seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, the Carter administration ordered all Iranian students, then the largest group of international students on American campuses, to report to immigration officials. Those found not to be in compliance with visa rules or deemed to be a national-security threat were told to leave the country. Within five years, the number of Iranians studying in the United States had declined 70 percent.

But Swalwell’s idea didn’t distinguish among the roughly 5,000 Russian students in the United States. (The congressman later said he wanted to sanction students connected to Russian oligarchs.) In fact, there has been no suggestion that Russian students pose any security threat — just that their expulsion could be one more tool to punish and isolate Russia.

While Swalwell is a Democrat, openness to viewing international students as a political tool may have its roots in the presidency of a Republican, Donald J. Trump. Trump’s isolationist and sometimes xenophobic rhetoric had the broad effect of othering international students and other noncitizens for some Americans and sending a message that they didn’t belong.

Trump made students from China an explicit part of growing geopolitical tensions with China. He is alleged to have said all Chinese students are spies and considered prohibiting them from getting visas. When the mainland-Chinese-backed government imposed a new national-security law on Hong Kong, the Trump administration retaliated by ending the Fulbright Program, the flagship exchange program, for China and Hong Kong.

There are good reasons to be concerned about competition with China, of course. But the Trump administration’s singling out of Chinese students may also have informed Americans’ views: When Pew polled people about Chinese students in particular, more than half backed limiting their numbers at American colleges. One in five was strongly in support.

Could the tensions around Chinese, and now Russian, students suggest that the United States is moving toward the normalization of international students as a geopolitical tool? Given the college degree’s status as a premium American export, Allen told me that international students could continue to be a “foreign policy bargaining chip.”

What are the implications of a potential new politicalization of international students? Let me know what you think — I’m at karin.fischer@chronicle.com.

More on higher ed and the conflict in Ukraine

Here’s more higher-education news related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

While some European governments have cut academic and research ties to Russia, American colleges have moved more cautiously.

After the Russian Union of Rectors issued a statement in support of the invasion, the European Universities Association suspended the membership of the 12 institutions whose leaders signed the statement.

Ukrainian universities have been hit by Russian bombing.

The Biden administration announced that it would provide Temporary Protected Status for Ukrainians in the United States, allowing them to continue to work and blocking them from deportation. The government, however, has not said whether it will give Special Student Relief to students from Ukraine, as higher-education, civic, and religious groups have urged.

Brush up on these Russian oligarchs who have also been major donors to American colleges.

A dozen students studying abroad in Russia through a Middlebury College program had to hurriedly leave the country.

Why were so many students from Africa and India studying in Ukraine?

“War may be the enemy of education, but education is how we train independent-minded thinkers to cultivate peace,” writes Ani Kokobobo in The Chronicle Review.

For her new podcast, Rajika Bhandari, an international-education expert, spoke with an international student from Ukraine and an expert on refugee-student issues.

Tell me: As the fighting in Ukraine plays out nightly on cable news, how are you teaching about the conflict in the classroom? Send me a note at karin.fischer@chronicle.com and you could be featured in a future newsletter or reporting.

Berkeley will limit international enrollments

There will be fewer spaces for international and other out-of-state students in the incoming class at the University of California at Berkeley after the state’s Supreme Court upheld a strict cap on enrollments.

About 90 percent of the first-year class will be made up of California residents, compared with 70 percent in the fall of 2021. To comply with the court order, which limits the number of students who can be on campus, some students will begin their studies online and move to in-person instruction once spaces are freed up by students graduating or studying abroad.

In a statement, the university said it would “prioritize” Californians for in-person enrollment.

This action is a reversal of the past decade of enrollment policy, in which Berkeley and other University of California campuses admitted larger numbers of international and out-of-state students to make up for lower state funding. Berkeley in particular has been a magnet for international students — applications from overseas increased 10 percent this year.

For more about the enrollment cap — and the neighborhood lawsuit that led to it — check out coverage by my colleague Katherine Mangan.

Around the globe

In his State of the Union speech, President Biden called on Congress to pass legislation that would invest in research and development to compete with China.

A top Senate Republican urged the U.S. Department of Justice not to end the China Initiative, its investigation of researchers’ ties to China.

A global index has found academic freedom “under pressure” around the world. While Hong Kong saw the steepest declines in protections for students and scholars, the report also notes a drop in academic freedom in the United States and Europe.

The University of Washington will keep its Israeli studies program even after a donor pulled a $5-million gift because of a professor’s criticism of Israel.

The State University of New York quietly closed all of its Confucius Institutes, the language-and-cultural centers supported by the Chinese government.

The Biden administration has approved special protections for students affected by the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, giving them additional flexibility and permitting off-campus employment.

The head of the student union at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand’s most elite college, was removed from his post amid ongoing student-led protests against the country’s monarchy.

The University of Alberta rejected a doctoral student’s thesis for publication after she included her name in Arabic script on the title page.

See which colleges produced the most Fulbright students and scholars in 2021-22.

And finally...

Before I sign off, I wanted to introduce myself: My name is Karin Fischer, and if my byline is familiar, it’s because I’ve been writing about international education for The Chronicle for nearly 15 years. Over that time, my reporting has taken me around the globe: to India to investigate corruption in student recruiting, to Portugal to explore new models for university-driven economic development, to Hong Kong to document the growth of the liberal arts, and to Bangladesh to write about women’s education.

Three years ago, I began this newsletter as a way to share the observations and insights that fill my reporter’s notebooks. Beginning today, Latitudes is an official Chronicle newsletter. You can expect topical and timely coverage of global education news — as well as sharp, incisive analysis to help put it in context.

When not geeking out about higher education, I’m an uncoordinated runner, an adventurous home cook, and a fervent Washington Nationals fan. I’ll never miss an opportunity to tell you I’m Canadian.

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.