Tested in recent years, international educators are weary but hopeful

Tested by four years of hostile U.S. government policy toward international students and battered by a pandemic that slammed shut borders, international-education administrators gathering this week in Denver were weary yet optimistic about the future of the field.

“The world needs international educators,” said Esther D. Brimmer, executive director of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. “Amid rising authoritarianism and intolerance, our role remains vital.”

This year’s NAFSA conference is the first since 2019 to be held in person. And because of the timing of the Covid-19 shutdown, it’s also the first since President Donald J. Trump lost his bid for re-election.

From the outset of his administration, when he abruptly put in place a ban against travelers, including students and scholars, from a half-dozen predominantly Muslim countries, Trump’s policy stances were unfriendly to foreign students and at odds with international academic engagement. Then came the pandemic, which devastated international enrollments.

Together, they delivered a one-two punch that sent international educators reeling. Even now, many in the field are trying to recover.

Despite that, NAFSA attendees are largely upbeat and focused on the future. “Cautiously optimistic,” one told The Chronicle. “I’m trying to let the ‘new normal’ sink in.”

“Exhausted, but hoping to be energized and inspired by the conference,” said another.

“Excited to see each other and collaborate in person. We have important discussions about where to go next,” a third said.

And nearly all echoed the same word: hopeful.

Still, the challenges are numerous. Study abroad and international-student mobility both face significant barriers to returning to past levels amid a persistent, lingering coronavirus. Global competition for talent has only grown more heated. And while the Biden administration has been more hospitable to international education, sunny rhetoric hasn’t always translated to concrete action.

Attendance at the conference is a legacy of the recent crises, at 6,000, far smaller than recent gatherings. (The 2019 conference, in Washington, D.C., had 10,000 attendees.) The budgets for international offices, which are often self-funded, took a beating during the pandemic, and many colleges and organizations could not afford to send staff members to NAFSA. Layoffs, retirements, and freezes on new hires have also shrunk the size of the international-education work force.

On the eve of the meeting, two global-education groups announced they would start a fund to help pay for professional-development activities for international educators, including attending future NAFSA conferences.

The American Institute for Foreign Study and the Council on International Educational Exchange said they would donate $100,000 over the next three years to help defray the costs of going to conferences held by NAFSA, the Forum on Education Abroad, and Diversity Abroad.

“Everyone is cutting something,” said William L. Gertz, chairman of AIFS. “University funding for professional development just isn’t there.”

Gertz said the two international-exchange groups were still working to fine-tune the selection process but that they would seek a diverse pool of applicants from a wide range of institutions. Conferences are important educational opportunities, he noted, but also help those early in their careers build professional networks critical to their advancement.

The professional-development fund could also be expanded and extended, Gertz said. “The field is hurting now,” he said. “We need to rebuild things.”

  • Are you attending NAFSA? I’d love to meet up with many of you. Slide into my DMs, email me, or just look for me around the convention hall. And thanks to everyone who suggested can’t-miss sessions and events.
  • Can’t make it to Denver? Follow along on Twitter and LinkedIn. I’ll be sharing news, observations, and analysis throughout the week. The conference hashtag is #nafsa2022.

Blinken’s remarks on Chinese students are praised and panned

The ability to attract talented students from around the globe is “one of the most powerful, even magical things about the United States,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said in a major foreign-policy speech outlining American strategy toward China.

Blinken singled out students from China, the largest group of international students on American campuses. Before the pandemic, nearly 375,000 Chinese students were in the United States, and following Covid-related downturns, American consulates in China issued 100,000 student visas in just four months last year.

Blinken noted that many of those students remain in the United States after graduation, particularly those with advanced degrees in highly sought-after science and engineering fields.

“We’re thrilled they have chosen to study in the United States. We’re lucky to have them,” he said in a May 26 speech at George Washington University.

The secretary of state said that the Biden administration would take seriously security concerns while continuing to welcome Chinese students and scholars: “We can stay vigilant about our national security without closing our doors.”

In recent months, the administration has repealed the China Initiative, the controversial inquiry of researchers’ ties to China, begun under the Trump administration. But among some academics and advocates, there is disappointment that President Biden has not done enough to break with the policies of his predecessor. The APA Justice Task Force, which supports Asian American scientists, pointed out in its weekly newsletter that visa restrictions on some Chinese students and scholars remain.

On Twitter, James A. Millward, a professor of Chinese history at Georgetown University, called statements like Blinken’s “welcome outreach to Chinese people and clear recognition of U.S. self-interest.” But he said the administration had “missed opportunities” to do more to strengthen academic and cultural ties, such as reinstating the flagship Fulbright exchange program to Hong Kong and mainland China, which Trump ended in 2020.

Russia will withdraw from European higher-ed system

The Russian government said it would drop out of a system for standardizing higher education across Europe, the latest move to pull back from international academic collaboration since the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Valery Falkov, minister for science and higher education, announced last week that Russia would replace the internationally recognized framework known as the Bologna Process with a new system designed to meet “national interests.”

“The future belongs to our own unique system of education, which should be based on the interests of the national economy and the maximum opportunities for each student,” Falkov said.

The two-decades-old Bologna Process added consistency and coherency to European higher education, making degrees and courses of study standard across national borders. Russia’s withdrawal could make it more difficult for Russian degrees to be recognized by European universities for advanced study and by some employers.

No timeline has been announced for Russia to quit Bologna.

The move could deepen Russia’s academic isolation. Falkov earlier said that Russia will not allow its researchers to take part in international conferences and will stop indexing their international publications. Colleges, academic organizations, and governments in the West have also cut ties with Russia, suspending joint research projects, withdrawing invitations to international academic conferences, and even, in a few cases, blocking Russian professors from publishing in certain journals.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that some Russian scholars are quietly working to prevent colleagues who have supported the invasion of Ukraine from being elected to the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Around the globe

The Biden administration will lift restrictions on group educational travel and research exchanges with Cuba.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a clarification to earlier international-student guidance to specify that only students enrolled in American colleges at the start of the pandemic qualify for Covid-related flexibility to enroll in online courses. Students who began their studies after March 9, 2020, must take at least some in-person courses, the message stated.

Yale University’s arts and sciences faculty approved a resolution calling on the institution to form a committee to review policies for professors under investigation by outside agencies. Yale suspended, then reinstated, a biology professor who had been under investigation as part of the China Initiative.

President Lawrence S. Bacow of Harvard University criticized stringent disclosure requirements of foreign contracts and gifts to American colleges being considered by the U.S. Congress. “The government doesn’t need to know who’s buying somebody else a cup of coffee,” he told The Harvard Crimson.

China has eased some Covid restrictions at Beijing universities to avoid protests as the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approaches.

A California man has been charged with smuggling sensitive aeronautics software to a Beijing university in violation of export-control regulations.

The president of Poland has been accused of blocking the promotion of a researcher who studies the psychology of genocide, as part of his government’s effort to push back against scholars who study Poland’s role in the Holocaust.

Australian universities hope the election of a new center-left government will lead to reinvestment in higher education and greater engagement internationally.

Global aid to higher education exceeded $5 billion in 2019, a record amount, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

A new Unesco “roadmap” for higher education worldwide calls for greater inclusion and diversity, more global cooperation, and a commitment to sustainability and academic freedom.

Three Lebanese universities are setting up foreign branch campuses in hopes of increasing revenue and attracting international students who might not otherwise be willing to study in Lebanon.

Without immigration reform, top international students lack a clear future in the United States, a doctoral student from India writes. Divyansh Kaushik was among the subjects of a joint Chronicle-APM Reports audio documentary on the future of international enrollments. The documentary is a finalist for the Education Writers Association award for audio storytelling.

And finally …

In a story that reads like an overseas dispatch from the satirical newspaper The Onion, the student government of an Australian university rejected the registration of a campus occult club.

The University of Adelaide’s student union turned down the application of a club for pagans, witches, and satanists because of concerns that its members might summon the devil to campus. Without official recognition, the group cannot meet on campus.

“Even if we did want to summon Satan, it’s not against university or union policy to do so, so it’s still not really grounds to reject us,” the occult club’s president told Australia’s ABC News. The group plans an appeal.

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line at karin.fischer@chronicle.com. You can also connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.