For decades, the US has enjoyed the scientific and economic benefits that come from being able to attract the world’s best and brightest students and researchers. Is this about to change?
For American colleges and universities, international students represent a booming business. Last year alone, over one million international students were enrolled in tertiary institutions in the United States, comprising over 5% of all US post-secondary institution enrolled. In fact, international student enrolment in the US has been rising steadily since the early 1950s, driven primarily by an influx of students from two regions of the world: Asia and the Middle East.
Over three quarters of all international students studying at US colleges and universities last year originated from either Asia or the Middle East. Many of these students choose to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). For example, almost 80% of Iranian students enrolled at US tertiary institutions last year were STEM majors. Compared with international students, a relatively low proportion of US-born students consider pursuing STEM degrees.
In addition to these US-educated immigrants, the STEM workforce is further bolstered by immigrants educated elsewhere who have chosen to build their careers in the US, greatly benefitting the country in the process. For example, Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy analysed American Nobel winners in chemistry, medicine and physics since 2000. He determined that immigrants were awarded 40% of the 78 Nobel Prizes that were won by Americans. According to Anderson, “a greater openness to immigration helped make the United States the leading global destination for research in many different science and technology fields, including computers, cancer research and many others.“
Professor Adil Najam, Dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University, also analysed US Nobel winners. “Immigrants to the US who won the Nobel, would come second only to the US-born laureates group,” he notes. Like Anderson, Najam believes that this is the result of the ability of US institutions to “attract, welcome, embrace and ultimately benefit from the best intellectual talent from all corners of the world.” This is exemplified by the fact that immigrants founded more than half of all billion-dollar US startups.
President Donald Trump’s election victory late last year has sparked enormous uncertainty for students, researchers and tertiary institutions alike. If international students are dissuaded from studying in the US, STEM fields may face an imminent shortage of qualified employees. Moreover, STEM researchers, whether born in the US or not, may well choose to leave the country in light of the new administration’s overwhelmingly anti-science outlook and their recent National Institutes of Health budget cuts.
For every action, an equal and opposite reaction
There is somewhat more certainty about the President’s stance on immigration from the Middle East. On 27 January 2017, just seven days after his inauguration, the President signed an executive order on immigration, banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, for 90 days. In the hours and days that immediately followed the order, travellers were detained at airports and protests abounded. Some of those detained were people who had valid visas and had lived in the US for years without incident. Among these were international students and researchers who were simply trying to return to their place of study or employment.
US tertiary institutions were quick to voice their opposition to the order, citing concern for current international students as well as the country’s ability to attract future students and researchers. The Association of American Universities (AAU) comprises 62 leading research universities across the US and Canada. Just one day after the signing of the executive order, the President of the AAU, Mary Sue Coleman, called for a swift end to the order, asserting that it was stranding students trying to return to US campuses and threatening to “disrupt the education and research of many others.”
On 2 February, 48 US colleges and universities, including all eight Ivy League institutions, banded together and sent a letter to President Trump, urging him to “rectify or rescind” the order as it “specifically prevents talented, law-abiding students and scholars from the affected regions” from reaching their campuses.
Opposition to the President’s order was not limited to the US, nor even the seven countries affected by it. Universities Australia represents Australia’s university sector and aims to advance the internationalism of its universities. Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive of Universities Australia, voiced concerns that US-based scholars from the seven affected countries may be unable to visit Australia for research collaborations if they are unsure whether they will subsequently be allowed back into the US. Robinson pointed out that this would be a blow to international collaboration, academic conference participation, and postdoctoral work.
The order was suspended on 3 February and the suspension was subsequently upheld on 9 February. However, at the start of March, the President signed a revised order, effective 16 March, which excludes Iraq and current US visa and green-card holders. It also provides for a case-by-case waiver process for individuals from the remaining six countries, citing study and work as circumstances under which a waiver might be granted.
Shortly after the revised order was announced, Coleman expressed hope that it would cause less disruption because students and faculty already on campus would be able to exit the US and re-enter without fear of being prohibited from returning. However, Coleman argued that the revised order would still convey the same message to talented prospective students or faculty from the six affected countries and others: “You are no longer welcome here.”
I still remember receiving a deceptively benign-looking letter from Princeton University in the mail almost eight years ago. I had not applied to any Australian universities because I wanted to major in a science field and felt that the US’s reputation for innovation, open-mindedness and enthusiasm for scientific enquiry made it the obvious choice. Needless to say, it did not take me long to respond to the offer of admission within with a resounding “yes!”
It is unclear whether future prospective international students will be granted this choice in the first place and if so, whether it will be as clear-cut, given the President’s overwhelmingly negative stance on immigration.
For Tanishk Shanker, a member of Princeton’s class of 2020 and an engineering major, the memory of receiving his offer of admission from Princeton is especially fresh. Shanker is a New Zealand citizen but was living in the United Arab Emirates when he applied to Princeton in late 2015. He has previously lived in a variety of Christian, Islamic and Buddhist countries and was admittedly “a little worried,” but largely unperturbed by the presidential election campaign.
Shanker’s high school principal and mother both recognised that he had the potential to attend a world-class institution and encouraged him to apply to elite schools. Shanker was accepted to top US and United Kingdom institutions but ended up ruling out the UK because, from the university application process, he felt that “US universities care more about who a student is as a person,” and would allow him to explore a broader variety of subjects before declaring his major.
When Shanker arrived on Princeton’s campus last year, he was struck by the pervasiveness of election talk. “Almost every conversation was focused on the election, even conversations between international students,” he says. Months later, Shanker notes that almost every conversation on campus still seems to revolve around the election results.
Despite his status as an international student, Shanker had not felt personally affected by the election results until January. During the intersession break, he visited Canada with a group of his international friends from Europe. On returning, Shanker’s friends passed quickly through the immigration line while he was stopped for lengthy questioning: his passport was full of stamps from Arab countries. “This is when I realised,” says Shanker, “that [the new Presidency] does affect me too.”
Shanker was eventually allowed through immigration but counts himself lucky, noting that a Yemeni student on campus could not even leave the US in the first place for fear that he would not be permitted back. Shanker hopes to travel abroad with friends for the upcoming spring break but is reconsidering after his recent uncomfortable experience with immigration. “The US feels like my home now,” he says, “which makes it harder to leave now if I can’t get back in.”
Despite the President’s order on immigration and the “discouraging feeling” that Trump is “trying to delegitimise science,” Shanker does not regret coming to study at Princeton because he does not intend to stay on after graduation, acknowledging “it would be a much bigger deal if I were planning on living here long-term… but that’s not my end goal.”
Unlike Shanker, Azadeh intended to remain in the US following graduation in order to forge a career for herself as an astrophysicist. Azadeh is a co-founder of the "Your Nextdoor Iranian" Facebook page. The page is dedicated to sharing the personal stories of Iranians in the US, many of who obtained postgraduate degrees at US tertiary institutions.
Azadeh completed her undergraduate degree in Iran before moving to the US to pursue a PhD in astrophysics. Almost nine years later, she is a postdoctoral scholar, undertaking research in astrophysics in the US, whose universities and institutions are, she says, “undoubtedly great places for research in astronomy and physics.”
Azadeh was about to embark on a trip to Germany when the President announced his initial order on immigration. She immediately sought advice from several lawyers and subsequently cancelled her trip. “I would absolutely like to remain in the US to perform my research and continue my work,” she says. “But if things get crazy in the sense that I cannot travel, I will seriously consider leaving this country.” Azadeh had also been anticipating a visit from her parents, who had been interviewed for US tourist visas the previous month. At the time of publication, she is still waiting to hear whether her parents’ visas have been approved.
International collaboration and exchange at risk
Being able to travel is important in research, as many PhD programs encourage participation in scientific conferences and the majority of higher-level research projects hinge on international collaboration. At international scientific conferences, researchers of various nationalities and career stages congregate to exchange ideas and progress cutting-edge research. Often, the informal and formal networks that are established at these events extend far beyond the event itself and generate long-term scientific collaborations, which cross borders and disciplines. Indeed, one in four scientific articles produced globally in 2014 included at least one international co-author, the latest figure in a trend towards greater international scientific collaboration.
Shortly after the President signed the initial order on immigration, academics across the world voiced their disapproval and demonstrated support of colleagues from the seven affected countries by pledging to boycott international conferences in the US. As of 22 February 2017, the boycott included over 6,500 signatures from academics. At the time of publication, another petition titled 'Academics Against Immigration Executive Order' comprised over 43,000 signatures and included 62 Nobel laureates. The petition warns that the order has the potential to “lead to departure of many talented individuals who are current and future researchers and entrepreneurs in the US.”
Their loss, our gain?
In the last academic year alone, international students contributed over US$32 billion to the US economy and supported more than 400,000 jobs. These measures do not capture the social and cultural capital that these students generate. When international students study in the US, they forge networks and ties that frequently accompany them into global careers. They learn about the US and its culture, including how business is done there, and many of them go on to become global business leaders, politicians, or scholars, who retain connections with the US. In essence, the country as a whole stands to lose considerable economic, social and cultural capital if the President’s order hurts international student recruitment.
“Other countries have set the goal of surpassing the United States as the global leader in higher education, research, and innovation,” said Coleman on 28 January 2017. “Allowing [other countries] to replace this country as the prime destination for the most talented students and researchers would cause irreparable damage, and help [other countries] to achieve their goal of global leadership.”
Coleman’s fears were echoed in the letter sent to the President by 48 US university representatives. They reminded him that “America’s educational, scientific, economic, and artistic leadership depends upon our continued ability to attract the extraordinary people who for many generations have come to this country in search of freedom and a better life”.
At this stage, it is too soon to determine whether these fears will be realised. However, anecdotal evidence, including from recent conversations I have had in my role as a US admissions consultant, seem to indicate a rise in international student recruitment to English-speaking countries other than the US, including Australia.
Considering that international students contributed almost $17 billion to Australia’s economy in 2014-15 and supported over 128,000 jobs, the US’s predicted loss could be our gain. Five Australian universities were already ranked among the top 25 most international universities in the world last year, as determined by Times Higher Education. The rankings reflect the total number of international students and staff as well as the strength of international research collaborations. These metrics could all dip for US tertiary institutions as a result of the ban.
Australia seems well poised to pick up at least some of the US’s slack. However, these events are recent and it will be years until the repercussions for international student recruitment and scientific research become clear. Yet until the President’s specific stance and policies on international students and researchers are clarified, the long-reaching implications for the US and Australia will remain up in the air.
Edited by Ena Music